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What is WikiLeaks? What did Julian Assange do? Why does the US want to extradite him?

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Julian Assange has been central to a decade-long saga between authorities worldwide
Julian Assange has been central to a decade-long saga between authorities worldwide   -   Copyright  Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
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The past decade has been a long one for Julian Assange, who discovered on Monday he'd passed the first hurdle to bat away an extradition request from the United States.

His case, however, is not yet over, with the US set to appeal the ruling from London's Old Bailey.

So, for anyone just now reading into this story, or for those who need a catch-up, here is everything you need to know about the 49-year-old Australian, his founding of WikiLeaks, and his battle against extradition.

What is WikiLeaks?

WikiLeaks was set up in 2006 as a platform for anonymous whistleblowers wanting to share top-secret information and data.

Founded by Assange, it divided opinion around the world - many, on one side, argued WikiLeaks provided ground-breaking investigative journalism, while the other said it posed a risk to national security.

What sort of things has WikiLeaks released?

The website has released numerous troves of documents, known as data or information dumps, in its 15 years of being active.

Some of the most famous are 400,000 secret military reports relating to the war in Iraq, and a further 90,000 on Afghanistan.

In 2010, the platform released the now infamous "Collateral Murder" video, which shows soldiers in a US Apache helicopter killing a dozen people on the ground in Baghdad, including two Reuters journalists.

What happened to Assange?

Swedish authorities issued an arrest warrant for Assange in 2010 over charges of rape and sexual assault.

He was later held in the UK, where he was living at the time, to await the result of an extradition request to face the charges in Sweden.

Two years later, however, Assange skipped bail and sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he would spend the next seven years.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
The Wikileaks founder spent seven years in the Ecuadorian EmbassyKirsty Wigglesworth/AP

By this time, the US had launched an investigation into the publishing of the documents relating to Iraq and Afghanistan and later sought to press charges and extradite Assange from the UK. Such charges included 17 for espionage and one for computer misuse "by cracking a password" with US whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

Manning, a former US army intelligence analyst, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for her part in the leaks, but eventually served seven when former US president Barack Obama commuted her sentence. She was later sent back to prison in March 2019 for refusing to testify against WikiLeaks and was ordered to be released around a year later.

Meanwhile, relations between Assange and Ecuador had begun to sour amid accusations from President Lenin Moreno of "repeated violations" at the embassy. It resulted in Assange being evicted - and he was filmed in April 2019 being dragged from the building.

Assange was found guilty of skipping bail and, pending the US request for extradition, was taken to Belmarsh Prison, where he remains to this day.

Sweden dropped the rape case in November 2019.

Photo by Andy Kropa/AP
Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison - but this was eventually cut to sevenPhoto by Andy Kropa/AP

What happened in the extradition case?

Following a four-week hearing, Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled on January 4 that Assange should not be extradited to the US.

She accepted the case from the defence team that it would be "oppressive" to allow Assange to be sent to a solitary confinement facility in America when considering the state of his mental health.

Assange, now a father of two, is said to have experienced suicidal ideation in Belmarsh and has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and depression. The court also heard how the 49-year-old had planned for the end of his life.

Noting this, Baraitser said Assange came across as a "depressed and sometimes despairing man" who would be deemed a high suicide risk. She said she believed he had the "intellect and determination" to circumvent suicide protection measures if he so wished.

Frank Augstein/AP
Supporters celebrated outside court after hearing the extradition had been blockedFrank Augstein/AP

Is this a win for press freedom?

Not really. In her ruling, Judge Baraitser upheld the majority of the prosecution's arguments to extradite Assange, which included saying he could not rely on protections of free speech and freedom of the press.

She said this was because several of his actions had been outside the remit of a journalist, and would have violated the Official Secrets Act if prosecuted in the UK.

Therefore, the case was completely reliant on Assange's mental health, rather than press freedom - and is what ultimately swung the decision in his favour.

What happens now?

Two days after the extradition hearing, Baraitser denied a bail request from Assange's lawyers, meaning he will remain in Belmarsh until the US launches its extradition appeal. It has until January 18 to do so.

These efforts, however, may ultimately be in vain, according to the federal prosecutor leading the charge against Assange in the US.

Zachary Terwilliger, the US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, pointed out to NPR that an appeals process could be dragged over a series of months, during which time Joe Biden will have taken up the presidency and the Justice Department will change.

"It will be very interesting to see what happens with this case," the 39-year-old said. "There'll be some decisions to be made. Some of this does come down to resources and where you're going to focus your energies."