In Depth

Julian Assange: what has happened to the WikiLeaks founder?

Swedish prosecutors close rape investigation but US extradition hearing goes ahead next year

Swedish prosecutors have dropped an investigation into rape allegations against Julian Assange.

The WikiLeaks founder, who denied the accusations, is serving a 50-week sentence in Belmarsh prison in London for jumping bail in 2012.

Assange the hacker

In September 1991, at the age of 20, Assange gets his first taste of the long arm of the law when he is caught hacking into the Australian headquarters of Nortel, a Canadian multinational telecommunications corporation. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Assange was the “ringleader” of a small organisation of three described by a prosecutor as“looksee” hackers motivated purely by “arrogance and a desire to show off computer skill”. When the case finally comes to trial, in December 1996, Assange pleads guilty to 25 charges, but escapes jail due to the perceived absence of malicious or mercenary intent.

In December 2006, Assange launches WikiLeaks. The first document posted on the website is a paper signed by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys of Somalia calling for the execution of government officials by hired hit men. According to the site, the goal of WikiLeaks is “to bring important news and information to the public ... One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.”

In November 2010, WikiLeaks begins to release what it says are 251,287 diplomatic cables acquired from an anonymous source, prompting the US Department of Justice to open an investigation. The source is discovered to be army intelligence analyst Manning, who is later convicted under the Espionage Act. WikiLeaks becomes the subject of international attention when five newspapers around the globe - El Pais (Spain), Le Monde (France), Der Spiegel (Germany), The Guardian (UK) and The New York Times - publish 220 of the cables that WikiLeaks received from Manning.

Sexual assault allegations

In December 2010, Assange is arrested in London after Sweden issues an international arrest warrant over two allegations - one of rape and the other of molestation - by separate women. He denies the claims. Assange is “later granted conditional bail at the High Court, bankrolled by his supporters, who pay £240,000”, says The Guardian.

In November 2011, Assange loses his appeal against extradition to Sweden. His supporters say they fear that extradition to Sweden will result in him being extradited to the US to face charges of espionage. The Obama administration had repeatedly called Assange a “hi-tech terrorist” and expressed an intention to prosecute him when the opportunity arose.

The embassy years

In June 2012, after the UK Supreme Court denies his final appeal against his extradition, Assange enters the Ecuadorian embassy in London and is granted temporary asylum. The decision “put him in violation of his UK court bail, and it was clear that he’d be arrested by authorities if he ever tried to leave”, says Engadget.

In August 2012, Assange makes his first public appearance in two months. Speaking from the balcony of the embassy, he asks the US government to “renounce its witch-hunt” against Wikileaks.

In February 2016, the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention says that the WikiLeaks founder has been arbitrarily detained by UK and Swedish authorities since his arrest in 2010, and that the detention violates his human, civil and political rights. The UK rejects this charge and says that the panel’s decision won’t prevent Assange from being arrested if he leaves the embassy.

The following August, Assange and WikiLeaks are implicated in the hacking and leaking of emails between leading Democrats in the 2016 US presidential elections. According to The Atlantic, Assange also exchanged secret correspondence with Donald Trump Jr, son of the Republican candidate, in the run-up to the election. Despite the alleged link, following the Trump victory the then-attorney general, Jeff Sessions, tells reporters that Assange’s arrest remains a “priority”.

In 2018, a leaked memo from the Ecuadorian government reveals signs of friction between diplomats and their long-term house guest. Months earlier, Assange’s internet access had been suspended on the grounds that he had been using it to “interfer[e] in other countries’ affairs”. The memo lays out a list of rules that he must follow in order to have his internet restored, including a warning “to provide better care of the feline that he shares the embassy with or it may be handed to a refuge”, says the BBC.

The memo also implores “Assange and his guests to keep the bathroom clean”, according to The Guardian. Failure to comply with the terms “could lead to the termination of the diplomatic asylum granted by the Ecuadorian state”, the letter warns. In response, Assange accuses Ecuador of violating his “fundamental rights and freedoms”.

Arrest and developments

In April 2019, Assange is arrested for breach of his bail conditions after Ecuador revokes his political asylum and invites Metropolitan Police officers inside its embassy in Knightsbridge. Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno says Assange’s asylum has been withdrawn as a result of his repeated violations of international conventions.

The Swedish authorities then announce that they are considering whether to reopen an investigation into the sexual abuse allegations, while the US vows to continue to push for his extradition.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn argues that Assange should not be extradited to the US “for exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan”. In a tweet, Corbyn posts a video released by WikiLeaks that allegedly shows Pentagon footage of a 2007 air strike “which implicated US military in the killing of civilians and two journalists”, reports the BBC.

On 1 May, a judge sentences Assange to 50 weeks in prison for breaching his bail conditions. 

On 21 October, Assange appears in court as part of his bid to fight extradition to the United States, where he faces 18 counts including conspiracy to hack government computers and violating espionage law. He could be sentenced to up to 174 years in prison if convicted.

Without the long beard he had during his last public appearance in May, the 48-year old “appeared in good health” but “mumbled and stuttered for several seconds as he gave his name and date of birth at the start of a preliminary hearing”, reports Reuters.

When the judge asked him at the end of the hearing if he knew what was happening, he replied “not exactly”, complained about the conditions in jail and said he was unable to “think properly”.

Assange’s lawyer, Mark Summers, has told the court his client was “gripped” by fear that if extradited to the US, he might be sent to Guantanamo Bay or face other charges that carry the death penalty. He argued that Assange’s extradition hearing should be delayed by three months due to the complexity of the case.

However, the judge at Westminster Magistrates Court rejected any delay, meaning a full extradition hearing will go ahead as planned on 25 February 2020.

Until then Assange will remain in prison. Under the terms of his original sentence, he was due to be released from Belmarsh Prison in London last month, but was remanded in custody because there were “substantial grounds” for believing he would abscond, reports the BBC.

While refusing to delay his US extradition hearing, Judge Baraister did, however, block a Spanish judge’s request to question Assange in London as a witness in a case exploring allegations that the Spanish security firm Undercover Global S.L. spied on the WikiLeaks founder while he was living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

The Madrid-based newspaper El Pais says “the British position, unprecedented in these types of requests for judicial collaboration, is being viewed by Spanish judicial bodies as a show of resistance against the consequences that the case could have on the process to extradite the Australian cyberactivist to the United States”.

Rape case dropped

On 19 November, Swedish authorities announce that they are ending an investigation into separate allegations of rape and sexual assault against Assange from 2010.

“The evidence is not strong enough to form the basis of an indictment,” said Eva-Marie Persson, Sweden’s deputy director of public prosecutions. “In such a situation, the preliminary investigation should be discontinued, and that is what has happened.”

Persson said that investigators had now spoken to two new interviewees, which led them to conclude that some parts of the accusers’ testimonies were contradictory.

Despite that, she said investigators had found the accusers credible and their statements reliable, says The New York Times. Persson suggested the contradictions were due to the lapse of time. 

“Memories fade for natural reason,” said Persson, emphasising that the “injured party has submitted a credible and reliable version of events”.

She added: “Her statements have been coherent, extensive and detailed. However, my overall assessment is that the evidential situation has been weakened to such an extent that there is no longer any reason to continue the investigation.”

The High Court ruled in September that Assange must stay in prison in the UK until the hearing over his potential extradition to the US, which is planned for early next year.

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