What did Julian Assange do? Why WikiLeaks founder faces US extradition

20 February 2024, 10:19 | Updated: 20 February 2024, 10:29

Julian Assange faces extradition to the US
Julian Assange faces extradition to the US. Picture: Alamy/Getty

By Kit Heren

Julian Assange faces the High Court for a two-day hearing, beginning today, that is likely to be his last chance to avoid being extradited to the US.

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Assange has been languishing in a south-east London prison for nearly five years, and is wanted by American authorities for leaking confidential military documents.

Assange and his supporters say that he released evidence of abuse of power by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US government say his actions put lives at risk in Afghanistan.

Read more: Priti Patel orders Julian Assange to be extradited to US, Home Office confirms

Read more: Wikileaks founder Julian Assange denied permission to appeal US extradition

Julian Assange
Julian Assange. Picture: Alamy

Who is Julian Assange?

Assange, 52, was born in Australia in 1971. He was one of several people who together established Wikileaks, a hacking collective, in 2006.

He had been a hacker since he was 16, and had already had brushes with the law in Australia, receiving a fine in 1995.

Julian Assange in 2009
Julian Assange in 2009. Picture: Alamy

What is Wikileaks?

Wikileaks has released about ten million classified documents, including many about the US military's activities in the Middle East.

Assange described Wikileaks as "a giant library of the world's most persecuted documents."

He told German publication Der Spiegel: "We give asylum to these documents, we analyse them, we promote them and we obtain more."

Wikileaks published a video in 2010 that it said showing a US military helicopter shooting dead Iraqi civilians.

The group also published thousands of classified documents released by US military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

The documents suggested that the US military had been involved in killing hundreds of Afghan civilians. These deaths had not been made public.

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What were the legal consequences for Assange?

Assange was accused of facilitating "one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States".

He was charged with 18 offences and accused of breaking into US military databases.

Assange said that the charges against him were politically motivated and that the documents show serious abuses.

The US began proceedings in 2019 to extradite Assange to the US so that he can face trial there.

The US said that his revelations had put lives at risk and that some people had "disappeared" after the publication of documents, although they could not prove that this was linked to Wikileaks.

Julian Assange in 2019
Julian Assange in 2019. Picture: Getty

What is this week's hearing about?

The 2019 extradition request was granted in December 2021, overturning a ruling earlier that year against the US over claims that Assange was in poor health and at risk of taking his own life.

The decision was upheld in 2022 by the Supreme Court, and then-Home Secretary Priti Patel rubber-stamped the extradition order.

The European Court of Human Rights dismissed his case without a hearing in 2022.

Now Assange is back in court seeking permission to review the 2021 decision - and his backers have said this may be his last chance.

His wife Stella has said he will die if he is extradited, so poor is his health.

If he is extradited to the US, and found guilty, he could face up to 175 years in prison. US government lawyers have previously said a sentence of between four and six years is more likely.

Julian Assange spent seven years in the Ecuadorean assembly
Julian Assange spent seven years in the Ecuadorean assembly. Picture: Getty

Why was Assange living in the Ecuadorean embassy?

Assange was accused by Swedish authorities of raping one woman and molesting another in 2010.

Sweden wanted the UK to extradite him, and British authorities eventually agreed after a legal battle.

But Assange was granted asylum in Ecuador's embassy in London in 2012, claiming the Swedish authorities would send him to the US, and spent the next seven years living there.

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He was visited by several celebrities, including Lady Gaga, and even fathered two children with Stella, who he married from prison in 2022.

Ecuador eventually told him to leave in 2019 for behaving aggressively, and British authorities arrested him.

He was sent to HMP Belmarsh for 50 weeks for breaching bail conditions in the Swedish case. His sexual offences case was dropped by Sweden because too much time had elapsed.

He has been kept in prison during extradition proceedings because he has a history of absconding.