DAVID GREENE, HOST:
For two years, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has been out of the headlines at least in part because he's been mostly out of sight, holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Now he says he is leaving soon. He announced that at a press conference in London today. Let's get the latest from NPR's Ari Shapiro. Ari, this has been a story with lot of twists and turns. Can you give me the 45-second back story to remind us about Assange and why he's so controversial?
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Yeah, well depending on who you ask, Julian Assange is either a hero or a villain. The U.S. government sees him as a massive national security threat. He and his supporters say he is the loudest voice fighting for transparency and press freedom. His WikiLeaks website published leaked revelations from Chelsea Manning, the American service member formerly known as Bradley Manning.
And WikiLeaks was also instrumental in the massive Edward Snowden leaks about surveillance programs conducted by the National Security Agency. WikiLeaks even reportedly helped Snowden fly from Hong Kong to Russian and paid for his lodgings there. So in the U.S., Julian Assange is wanted in connection with those incidents. A huge national security case against him has been building for years.
In Sweden, Assange is wanted on entirely separate allegations of rape and sexual assault. Ecuador offered him political asylum at the embassy in London a couple of years ago, and things have been more or less quiet since then until now.
GREENE: Until now, which makes you wonder, I mean, if he's really a legal target in two countries, he had this asylum, he was safe in the Ecuadorian Embassy, why's he leaving?
SHAPIRO: He says it's because of health concerns. During his news conference this morning he said, quote, "as you can imagine, being detained in various ways in this country without charge for four years and in this embassy for two years, which has no outside area, therefore no sunlight." He said, it's an environment in which any healthy person would find themselves soon enough with certain difficulties. He said the United Nations' minimum standard for prisoners is one hour a day outdoors, and he noted that he's not even officially even a prisoner.
GREENE: OK, so he's saying all of this at a press conference. Did he talk about the allegations against him in the United States and Sweden?
SHAPIRO: Yeah, he did. In fact the entire event had a pretty defensive tone. Assange laid out his rebuttal to the allegations against him both in the U.S. and in Sweden. He said he has not been officially publicly charged with any crimes. He said that a few times. British officials always said that if he set foot outside the embassy, he would be arrested immediately, which would likely mean deportation to either Sweden or to the U.S. to face trial.
During this press conference, Assange argued that his persecution is a threat to journalists everywhere. In terms of tone, he spoke slowly, often stopping and restarting his sentences. You remember in the past in interviews, he has come across as dashing, energetic, sort of a renegade.
SHAPIRO: During this morning's event, he looked kind of weak and tired.
GREENE: Which may make sense if he said he has health concerns.
GREENE: Ari, he had asylum from the government of Ecuador. Is there some sort of diplomatic agreement that might be surrounding all of this?
SHAPIRO: No, there's not. He and his supporters and the Ecuadorian government had been working to secure some kind of a diplomatic deal without success. And during this news conference, he voiced real frustration about that. So did the Ecuadorian foreign minister, Ricardo Patino. The foreign minister sat next to Assange at this press conference, and he said, these are two lost years for everyone. There has not been justice for anyone. The situation must come to an end, and he added, two years is simply too long.
GREENE: All right, we've been speaking to NPR's Ari Shapiro, talking about Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who's announced that he is leaving the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. And we'll see what awaits him next. Ari, thanks a lot.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome. Good to talk with you, David.
GREENE: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.