What did Julian Assange do? Who is WikiLeaks founder - and Supreme Court extradition case explained

The WikiLeaks founder has been held in Belmarsh Prison for almost three years

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has won the first step in his Supreme Court battle to appeal against the decision made in December last year to extradite him to the US.

Speaking after the ruling, Assange’s fiancee Stella Moris said that their “fight goes on and we will fight this until Julian is free”.

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This is everything you need to know.

Who is Julian Assange?

Assange is an Australian editor, publisher and activist, best known as the founder of WikiLeaks, which was created in 2006. WikiLeaks was a non-profit organisation which published classified information provided by anonymous sources - it claimed to be a platform for whistleblowers.

Assange was born in Queensland and began hacking as a teenager - when he was in his mid-20s, Assenge pleaded guilty to 24 charges of hacking and related crimes in Australia, and had to pay $2,100 in fines.

While Assange studied programming, mathematics and physics at Central Queensland University and the University of Melbourne, he did not earn his degree in film. In 1993, he used his computing skills to aid the Victoria Police Child Exploitation Unit to prosecute individuals behind publishing and distributing child pornography.

WikiLeads and Assange became the subject of global interest in 2010, when a series of leaks provided by US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning was published on the platform.

The leaks in question contained 75,000 documents which related to the war in Afghanistan, and roughly 390,000 army field reports relating to the war in Iraq.

Julian Assange speaks to the media from the balcony of the Embassy Of Ecuador (Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Following the leaks, the US government launched a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks and in November of 2010, an international arrest warrant was issued by Sweden against Assange over allegations of sexual misconduct.

At the time, Assange claimed that the accusations were a pretext in order to extradite him to the US.

In December of that year, Assange gave himself up to British authorities, where he attended his first extradition hearing. At the second hearing, Assange was granted bail. He went on to take refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, after a court ruled that he should be extradited to Sweden.

He stayed there for nearly seven years before serving a 50-week jail sentence for breaching his bail.

Since then, he has been held on remand at Belmarsh prison fighting extradition to the US.

Where is he being held?

Assange has been held on remand at Belmarsh prison since serving his 50 week jail sentence for breaching his bail. He has been there for almost three years.

Belmarsh is a Category-A men’s prison, which is the most serious category for prisoners.

HMP Belmarsh is a Category-A prison (Photo: HOLLIE ADAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

Prisoners held at Category-A prisons are defined as: “Those whose escape would be highly dangerous to the public or national security.

“Offences that may result in consideration for Category A or Restricted Status include: attempted murder, manslaughter, wounding with intent, rape, indecent assault, robbery or conspiracy to rob (with firearms), firearms offences, importing or supplying Class A controlled drug, possessing or supplying explosives, offences connected with terrorism and offences under the Official Secrets Act.”

Current inmates at Belmarsh also include Wayne Couzens and Stephen Port.

Why is he wanted in the US?

Assange is wanted in the US based on 17 charges relating to the obtaining and disclosure of US defence information, and one charge of conspiring with Chelsea Manning to hack into a government system.

Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation against Assange in 2019, with the Swedish Prosecution Authority stating that Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Eva-Marie Persson made the decision to “discontinue the investigation”.

Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle (Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

The reason for this was because “the evidence [had] weakened considerably due to the long period of time that has elapsed since the events in question”.

Persson said: "I would like to emphasise that the injured party has submitted a credible and reliable version of events.

"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."

What’s going on with his Supreme Court extradition battle?

Assange has won the first stage of his Supreme Court appeal bid against a decision to allow his extradition to the United States.

In December last year, US authorities won their High Court challenge to overturn a judge’s earlier ruling that Assange should not be extradited due to a real and “oppressive” risk of suicide.

A van displaying a pro-Assange message drives past as supporters of the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange gather outside the Old Bailey on September 14, 2020 in London (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The WikiLeaks founder’s lawyers are seeking to appeal that decision at the Supreme Court, arguing it raises “serious and important” legal issues.

For a proposed appeal to be considered by the UK’s highest court, a case has to raise a point of law of “general public importance”.

What did the judges say?

On Monday, two senior judges ruled there was a point of law, but refused permission for the appeal.

However, Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett, sitting with Lord Justice Holroyde, said Assange could go to the Supreme Court itself and ask to bring the appeal.

“Whether or not the issue needs ventilation in that court is a matter appropriately for its decision,” Lord Burnett said.

He also asked the Supreme Court to “take steps to expedite consideration” of any application for an appeal.

Assange’s lawyers now have 14 days to make the application to the Supreme Court.

In her January 2021 ruling blocking the extradition, then-district judge Vanessa Baraitser found in favour of the US on all issues except Assange’s mental health.

Assange has previously indicated that he wants to challenge the original judge’s other findings at a later date.

Supporters of Julian Assange outside the Royal Courts of Justice (Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Overturning the block on the extradition in December, senior judges found that Judge Baraitser had based her decision on the risk of Assange being held in highly restrictive prison conditions if extradited.

However, the US authorities later gave assurances that Assange would not face those strictest measures either pre-trial or post-conviction unless he committed an act in the future that required them.

Lord Burnett previously said that if the original judge had been given those assurances at the time of her ruling, “she would have answered the relevant question differently”.

In Monday’s pronouncement, Lord Burnett said the point of law was about the circumstances in which an appeal court can be given assurances by a country that were not given at the original extradition.

He added that “although the law in this jurisdiction has long been settled it does not appear that the Supreme Court has considered the question.

“Assurances are at the heart of many extradition proceedings.”

What did his fiancee Stella Moris say?

Assange’s fiancee, Stella Moris, hailed Monday’s court pronouncement as a win, but said Assange was still “far from achieving justice in this case”.

In a statement after the ruling, Moris said: “What happened in court today is precisely what we wanted to happen.

“The High Court certified that we had raised a point of law of general public importance and that the Supreme Court has good grounds to hear this appeal. The situation now is that the Supreme Court has to decide whether it will hear the appeal but make no mistake, we won today in court.

Stella Moris addresses the media and supporters outside the Royal Courts of Justice (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

“But let’s not forget that every time we win, as long as this case isn’t dropped, as long as Julian isn’t freed, Julian continues to suffer.

“For almost three years he has been in Belmarsh prison and he is suffering profoundly, day after day, week after week, year after year. Julian has to be freed and we hope that this will soon end.

“But we are far from achieving justice in this case because Julian has been incarcerated for so long and he should not have spent a single day in prison. If there had been justice, the officials who plotted, who conspired to murder Julian, would be in the courtroom right now.”

She added: “Our fight goes on and we will fight this until Julian is free.”

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