Julian Assange: enigmatic figure who became poster boy against state spying

Profile: Australian started hacking into networks when he was part of ‘computer underground’ in teens

Julian Assange's seven-year residency in Ecuadorean embassy in London ends with his arrest. Video: New York Times/ Reuters/ WikiLeaks


Pale, heavily bearded and unsteady, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — who was removed the Ecuadorian embassy on Thursday — cut a very different figure to the whistleblower who sought asylum there almost seven years ago.

Assange, the enigmatic figure behind the whistleblowing WikiLeaks website, has become a poster boy for campaigners against state spying and censorship.

To his critics, he is a danger to national security and his work could make him the subject of espionage charges in the US.

The Australian started hacking into networks of the powerful elite when he was part of the “computer underground” in his late teens.

The 47-year-old shot to public attention after founding the pro-transparency website in 2006 as an online library of otherwise secret documents from governments, intelligence agencies, political parties and multinational corporations.

WikiLeaks servers are located all over the world, but the central server is located in an underground nuclear bunker in Stockholm, Sweden.

As the self-styled editor-in-chief of the site, he has overseen the publication of more than 10 million documents and attracted high-profile supporters including Pamela Anderson, novelist Tariq Ali, filmmaker Ken Loach and Jemima Goldsmith (nee Khan).

He has been quoted as saying: “It is the role of good journalism to take on powerful abusers.”

Among the major leaks since the site’s foundation were battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, diplomatic communications and a military video showing a US helicopter attack that killed at least 11 men.

Former US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in a military prison over the leaks but this was commuted after seven years by former US president Barack Obama in January.

Assange has also been forced to deny Russian intelligence sources provided a trove of tens of thousands of emails from senior figures within the Democratic National Congress (DNC) during the US election campaign.

He published these alongside thousands of emails from the private server of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, originating from her time as secretary of state, which the site obtained through freedom of information laws.

The website boasts: “Although no organisation can hope to have a perfect record forever, thus far WikiLeaks has a perfect [record] in document authentication and resistance to all censorship attempts.”

Assange stood down as editor of Wikileaks in September last year.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen after he was arrested by British police outside Westminster Magistrates Court in London on THursday. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen after he was arrested by British police outside Westminster Magistrates Court in London on THursday. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Political asylum

Little detail is known about his personal life.

His parents reportedly met at a demonstration against the Vietnam war and he was born in Townsville, Australia in 1971.

He passed through 37 different schools when he was on the road with his mother’s travelling theatre company.

Later, while studying at the University of Melbourne between 2003 and 2005, he was vice-president of the mathematics and statistics society.

He left university without graduating after becoming disillusioned with academia, according to the society’s magazine Paradox.

Assange took refuge inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 after being bailed during extradition court hearings. A short time later he was granted political asylum by the South American country.

He was questioned in November 2016 by a Swedish prosecutor over an allegation of rape, which he has always denied.

For more than a year, doctors have warned of the Australian’s declining health due to the “prolonged uncertainty of indefinite detention”.

Another blow came in March last year, when it was reported that the embassy had cut off his internet and communications access.

A legal defence fund was set up in January amid fears the WikiLeaks founder was under “increasingly serious threat”.

Visitors during his nearly seven years in residence have included Anderson and former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, while one member of his inner sanctum has attracted its own following.

His kitten has her own Twitter and Instagram accounts, although it is not clear whether Assange runs them personally.

She was a gift from his young children to keep their father company.

What will happen to the feline in Assange’s absence is not yet known.–PA