In April 2019, Australian national Julian Assange was carried out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he had been living in asylum for seven years. Puffy-faced, with a scraggy white beard, Assange, now fifty, looked dazed and confused, and there were renewed calls for him to be set free. In the US he is wanted on eighteen criminal charges, including breaking espionage law. The charges relate to Cablegate, when, between 2010 and 2011, thousands of classified US state department files and diplomatic cables dating back to 1966 were made public.
Assange is the founder and editor-in-chief of whistleblowing platform WikiLeaks. He is a slippery figure: some say he is a hero, but he is also capable of reckless acts that cause harm to others. Several media organisations had been working with WikiLeaks to select and redact the cables to protect numerous informants, before they were released in November 2010. Then, to everyone’s shock, the entire cache of non-redacted files was made available online. Assange denies responsibility.
Assange began as a hacker, where he got into trouble with the Australian authorities. He fathered a child at eighteen, then fought a custody battle with the mother for nine years (she claims this is what turned his brown hair white.) He founded WikiLeaks in 2006, teaming up with German technology activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg. The latter left the organisation in 2010, citing Assange’s leadership style and liking for young women as reasons. That year, Assange was accused of rape and sexual assault in Sweden. He called it a “radical feminist plot” and claimed Sweden wanted to give him up to America. In 2019, the Swedish case was dropped because too much time had passed by.
While Assange was in asylum, WikiLeaks continued to publish potentially more damaging material than the Cablegate files. They exposed details of shady US tactics in trade negotiations, of the country’s surveillance of other governments, and of CIA hacking methods. Many prominent figures defend Assange as a publisher: politicians, including Jeremy Corbyn, media organisations such as The Guardian, intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, artists such as Ai WeiWei and Lady Gaga, as well as US whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked classified documents about the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers, in 1971. They say that prosecuting Assange on espionage charges would have devastating consequences for the freedom of the press.
So, what awaits Assange? The US has given assurances that he will not be mistreated, as was the case of Chelsea Manning, the former US soldier who leaked the Cablegate files, and who was eventually pardoned after attempting suicide twice while in custody. Assange, however, has made some powerful enemies. In 2016, he leaked emails hacked by the Russian state which sabotaged Hillary Clinton’s chances in the US election. Clinton wants him to answer for it.
Ecuador spent some $10 million on Assange’s upkeep and legal counsel. When new president Lenín Moreno was elected in 2017, he said that he had inherited the “spoiled brat” from his predecessor, Raffael Correa. Assange, he said, had tried to use the embassy as a centre for spying, made sexist and anti-Semitic remarks, and, on one occasion, spread faeces on the walls. He had also neglected to take care of his cat. Assange’s Ecuadorian citizenship was revoked in 2021.
After being removed from the embassy, Assange spent two years in the UK’s Belmarsh Prison, one year for jumping bail and another for being a flight risk. An initial rejection of extradition to the US on mental health grounds was overturned, when it was revealed that while in the embassy Assange had fathered two children with his partner, lawyer and now wife, Stella Morris. Born Sara Gonzalez Devant in South Africa, Morris also holds Spanish and Swedish nationality.