Julian Assange: The controversial founder of WikiLeaks

Julian Assange has walked free after a plea deal with US authorities ended a long legal saga.

For many, he is a brave fighter for freedom of the press. But for others, the 52-year-old Australian recklessly handled classified information and put countless lives at risk.

Assange is the founder of the WikiLeaks website, which has exposed government secrets around the world, most notably the explosive leak of US military files related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He spent more than a decade in detention or in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, trying to avoid extradition - first to Sweden to face rape charges and then to the United States.

Born in Townsville, Queensland, in 1971, Assange had a curious childhood and claims to have attended 37 schools before settling in Melbourne.

As a teenager, he discovered a talent for computer hacking, which brought him to the attention of the Australian police, but he admitted to most of the charges brought against him, for which he paid a fine.

In 2006, Assange founded WikiLeaks with like-minded activists and IT experts.

"We are setting a new standard for a free press," Assange told AFP in August 2010.

His legal battles began that year, soon after he published revelations from classified documents about the US military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rape allegations in Sweden followed, which he denied.

Assange was in Britain when Sweden sought his extradition. Ecuador granted him political asylum and let him into its embassy in London.

As of 2012, Assange lived in a small apartment in the embassy for 7 years, exercising on a treadmill and using a solar lamp to compensate for the lack of natural light. He compared his situation to living on a space station.

However, his long stay at the diplomatic mission building came to an end after the new government in Quito handed him over to British police in April 2019. He was arrested for absconding and jailed.

Swedish prosecutors dropped their rape investigation in 2019, saying that despite the alleged victim's credible account, there was insufficient evidence to proceed.

But US authorities accused him of violating the US Espionage Act.

For 5 years he was held in Belmarsh high-security prison in London during a protracted legal battle to decide whether he should be extradited to the US.

But just two weeks before Assange was due to appear in court to appeal the decision approving his extradition, he struck a deal with US authorities.

Assange went to the Northern Mariana Islands, a US possession in the Pacific Ocean, where he pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiring to obtain and disseminate national defence information in exchange for his freedom, ending his years-long trial drama.

Assange's supporters, including Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and the late fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, say the charges are politically motivated.

They have repeatedly expressed concern about the physical and mental impact of his prolonged imprisonment.

Nils Meltzer, the UN's special rapporteur on torture, said the "progressively severe suffering" inflicted on Assange during his detention amounted to torture.

Assange was initially supported by human rights groups and newspapers who worked with him to edit and publish the US military documents.

The evidence included leaked video footage of a US Apache helicopter gunship shooting and killing a Reuters photographer and driver as well as several Iraqi civilians on a Baghdad street in 2007.

But many were horrified when WikiLeaks released unredacted documents, including the names of the whistleblowers, online. Assange has fallen into spectacular conflict with his media partners.

Questions were also raised about Assange's relations with Russia.

Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into interference in the 2016 US presidential election won by Donald Trump has found that the Russians "appear" to have hacked Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign and then "publicly disseminated these materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks".

Assange is the father of two boys with his wife Stella, whom he met when she worked on his case. They are getting married in Belmarsh in March 2022 | BGNES