The complicated legacy of Julian Assange

Inside the Australian’s 14-year fight for freedom.
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Walking into the arms of his family at Canberra Airport last week, the sight of Julian Assange – a free man – came unexpected to many.

After 14 years of detention in the United Kingdom, including five years in a maximum-security prison, Assange’s arrival in his homeland was one of the final chapters in his decades-long legal battle.

Assange, who turns 53 this week, was joined by his wife of two years, Stella, and his father John Shipton, as he took his first steps as a free man.

“I ask you – please – to give us space, to give us privacy, to find our place, to let our family be a family before he can speak again at a time of his choosing,” Stella, 40, said. “You have to understand what he’s been through. He needs time.”

Julian Assange greets supporters at airport
Julian Assange gives thumbs up to supporters at Canberra Airport. (Credit: Getty)

The WikiLeaks founder was released from London’s Belmarsh Prison on June 24 after reaching a plea deal with the United States authorities.

He pled guilty to one criminal charge of espionage after disclosing military secrets. The judge took into consideration time served and he was immediately released.

The Townsville-born journalist has a controversial past. For some, he is a fearless campaigner for press freedom, for others, he is a reckless provocateur who puts lives in danger.

Julian Assange holding Wikileaks story
In July 2010, WikiLeaks released more than 700,000 classified US military files and top-secret documents. (Credit: Getty)

In 2010, WikiLeaks released more than 700,000 classified documents relating to the actions of the US military during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The files included allegations of war crimes, the names of informants and infamously, video of a US helicopter killing 11 people in Iraq, including two journalists.

It was described as one of the biggest intelligence leaks in history.

Following the explosive revelations, Assange was accused of raping two Swedish women, which he denied.

After Sweden sought his extradition, he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He stayed there for seven years while US authorities sought his arrest.

Julian Assange meets wife Stella at airport
Julian embraces his wife Stella at Canberra Airport. (Credit: Getty)

During his time in the embassy, Assange met his now-wife Stella. They had two sons in secret – Gabriel, seven, and Max, five.

After his diplomatic status was revoked in 2019, Assange was taken into custody by British police. As his health declined in jail, support for his release grew among the Australian public – a recent poll showed 71 per cent of Australians said Assange should be returned home.

He garnered support from all sides of the political spectrum, legal experts, and even Hollywood stars such as Pamela Anderson and Lady Gaga.

Stella Assange and her two sons
Stella Assange and her children join supporters of Julian’s at a rally in Parliament Square, London. (Credit: Alamy)

When asked about his new-found freedom, his mother Christine Assange said: “The past 14 years has obviously taken a toll on me … I am grateful that my son’s ordeal is finally coming to an end.”

After reuniting with his two boys, Assange is expected to return to “an ordinary life” where he can relax in nature and reconnect with his family.

“Julian has to recover – that’s the priority,” Stella said. “And the fact that Julian will always defend human rights, will always defend victims. He’s always done that. And that’s just part of who he is.

“He remains deeply principled. And unafraid.”

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