From freedom fighter to pariah: The spectacular fall of Julian Assange

Julian Assange outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2017
Julian Assange outside the Ecuardorian Embassy in 2017. Credit: PA

Julian Assange has always divided opinion. To some, he's a kind of Robin Hood of the information age, a self-appointed guardian of free speech, but to others he's a very dangerous and narcissistic character who America has declared an "Enemy of the State".

Born in Queensland in Australia, he was an accomplished computer hacker in his teens.

That eventually would lead to the founding of the controversial website Wikileaks in 2006 created specifically to make public classified information.

Global notoriety beckoned in 2010 when he published at least half a million state secrets on the site from US military intelligence files after American analyst Chelsea Manning passed on leaked documents.

Chelsea Manning was jailed for passing American state secrets to Wikileaks. Credit: AP

It first attracted the world's attention when helicopter cockpit video was posted showing a US airstrike in Baghdad which killed 18 people including civilians and two Reuters journalists during the 2003 to 2011 Iraq War.

Hundreds of thousands more military files, relating to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars followed, exposing more civilian deaths in unreported attacks were then released.

The documents also uncovered allegations of torture and other human rights abuses prompting widespread condemnation.

The most notable abuses included:

  • Evidence the US special forces hunted down Taliban Leaders for "kill or capture" without trial.

  • The illegal rendition of terror suspects from around the world to Guantanamo Bay, the notorious American detention centre based in Cuba.

  • The interrogation of enemy combatants at CIA "black sites" which allegedly used torture to extract information.

Assange would be hailed a hero among free speech campaigners. In fact, many believe some of the information influenced world-changing events.

A leak of thousands of messages between US diplomats were said to have prompted the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia when they revealed corruption in the country.

It resulted in a wave of uprisings across five countries such as Egypt and Libya where dictator Colonel Gaddafi was ousted and killed.

But he faced huge criticism when the same files found themselves in the public domain unredacted showing the names of local Afghans and Iraqis who passed information to US forces putting lives at risk.

Criticism grew after an international arrest warrant was issued for his arrest after two complaints of sexual assault against two women were lodged in Sweden where he'd been on a speaking trip.

He denied the allegations and took his fight against extradition to the country while on bail to the Supreme Court but he lost. That is the moment he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London 2012 requesting political asylum.

Fearing extradition to America, he remained there for seven years until his Ecuadorian protectors withdrew his asylum blaming "repeated violations" or "international conventions and daily-life protocols".

Julian Assange bundled out of the Ecuadorian Embassy where he sought political asylum in 2019 Credit: PA

They invited in the Metropolitan Police who promptly arrested him. They carried him out of the Embassy after he refused to leave. Later he was sent to Belmarsh Prison for breaching his bail conditions in 2012. His activities have attracted a groundswell of supporters, including celebrities, some of whom visited him in prison.

Swedish police eventually dropped their investigation but America quickly launched extradition proceedings of their own claiming 18 charges of espionage against him including allegations of hacking computers and conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information.

During the extradition hearings at the Old Bailey trial we learnt Assange is a vulnerable man prone to depression and suicidal thoughts.

An expert psychiatrist said he showed traits of autism spectrum disorder. Friends talked of his "quirky, unusual or odd" behaviour, bringing to mind moments when he'd moved furniture around in cafes and went behind the bar to change music.

But behind his apparent efforts to maintain a high profile, he is an intensely private person, keeping the birth of his two children with his partner Stella Moris under wraps while he was living in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

His colourful life story goes on and it's far from clear where it will all end.