The pursuit of Julian Assange has gone through offbeat avenues, including Magnetic Island, an area slightly smaller than Manhattan that lies off the coast of Queensland, Australia. But in the visitors' book in the island's history center, there is a clue as to the upbringing of the WikiLeaks founder. Writing in 2009 with a touch of nostalgia, one woman described her experience on the atoll: "I have lived on the Island three times. 1971 as a single mum with a young baby ... I lived in a bikini, 'going native' with my baby and other mums on the island." She includes a short description of life in 1976 on an abandoned pineapple farm, where foliage had to be slashed with a machete to clear the entrance. One notation reads, "Shot a taipan [a venomous snake] in the water tank and on son's bed. Had to suspend fruit from ceiling to protect from possums."
The writer was Christine Assange, Julian's mother. She has said little since her son's arrest on Swedish sexual-assault charges (notwithstanding a Dec. 12 interview with the Australian daily Sun Herald in which she discussed Mr. Squiggle, a moon-dwelling, pencil-nosed puppet that is popular with Australian children, whose creator died recently; Christine, who is in her mid- to late 50s, is an itinerant puppeteer whose Fairytale Puppet Theatre puts on shows at libraries, schools and birthday parties). But on Tuesday, she spoke on her son's behalf from London, following a 10-minute conversation with him in Wandsworth Prison. She read aloud her son's first statement since his arrest on Dec. 7 to Australia's 7 News, declaring that Julian was determined to continue with the WikiLeaks operation. "If anything, this process has increased my determination that they are true and correct," Christine read from Julian's statement. Later in the day, a British judge ruled that Julian could be released on £240,000 bail (nearly $380,000). Several supporters had already pledged large amounts toward his bail, including the muckraking American documentarian Michael Moore, who offered $20,000. Julian will remain in jail for 48 hours while Swedish authorities appeal the ruling.
As much as Julian Assange's mother is standing by him, his motherland is torn between official condemnation and a kind of national pride. The cables in WikiLeaks' megadump of U.S. diplomatic documents have largely painted former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in an unflattering light. One U.S. embassy assessment states that Rudd was a "control freak," while another reported that he told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to be prepared to use force against China "if everything goes wrong" (China is Australia's largest trading partner). Another document contained U.S. concern about Australia's ability to pay for its military buildup.
Rudd's successor, Julia Gillard, initially declared Assange's decision to publish 250,000 confidential cables illegal. On Dec. 7, Gillard told reporters that the "information would not be on WikiLeaks if there had not been an illegal act undertaken." Her department has since clarified that she was referring to the original theft of the information. However, an Australian federal police investigation has since been launched into Assange's actions.
Gillard's Labor Party appears undecided on its stance toward Assange. Labor Left MP Maria Vamvakinou told the Australian on Monday that she condoned Assange's release of the classified material. And Rudd, now Foreign Minister, told the same newspaper that it's his decision on whether Assange's passport will be revoked but that for now, no such action will be taken. Rudd also said he would help Assange obtain a laptop, if Assange requests one from consular officials. (Assange's lawyers have made a request for one to allow Assange to prepare for his case.)
In Australia, public support of Assange has been high. On Dec. 10, in the center of Sydney, 500 people gathered to protest the treatment of the WikiLeaks founder. Sam McLean from GetUp!, an Internet-based activist group, who spoke at the rally, tells TIME that the petition to press the rights of Assange has been the group's fastest-growing campaign. It has raised $360,000 to run a full-page ad in the New York Times, which it hopes to publish on Thursday.
On Tuesday, an open letter to Gillard was released, signed by more than 20 editors of some of the country's most esteemed media organizations. It condemned any potential threats to make publication of the cables illegal. Meanwhile, a major legal association has also lent its support. "Mr. Assange has been treated very poorly by the Australian government," said Greg Barns, a director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, who described the official investigation as a waste of taxpayers' money. "I am not aware of any offense against Australian law that he has committed."
Despite the large-scale public support for Assange in Australia, little is known about the 39-year-old. The few school friends who have surfaced have commented on little aside from his reclusiveness. "Jules wasn't a ratbag or anything," one of his classmates from the public school in Goolmangar, Sharon Graham, told the Australian on Dec. 11. "He just kept to himself." Another student, Peter Graham, told the newspaper of a kinder Assange. "He was the sort of kid who moved a spider and let it free when the others wanted to kill it." The absence of information is perhaps because school stints were too short for close friends Assange moved 37 times before the age of 14.
Suelette Dreyfus, an investigative journalist who wrote the book Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier in collaboration with Assange, remembers her first impression of her co-author from the early '90s. "He was tall, slender, pale-haired and pale-skinned. His complexion gave him a very distinctive look. He didn't look like a beach-blond Bondi babe," she says. "He looked like a guy that didn't come out in daylight much. I would say he could have been cast in Twilight." But after she got to know him, she says, she discovered an intense but "internal" person. "He was really deeply focused. When you have his attention, you have it 150%, but you don't keep it for very long unless you are feeding him information that he finds interesting, at a rapid pace," she says.
As for Magnetic Island, its residents are behind their boy. David Herron, a longtime resident, says the Assange he knew "was a quieter person, but when he started talking about something he believed in, he would really get his teeth into it." He adds, "The part of town he was from was the hippie-oriented, laid-back-end-of-the-bus-route kind of place. He was a true hippie." Herron, who says the last time he saw the WikiLeaks founder was nine years ago, says he believes that Assange's so-called quest for the truth is supported by the community of Magnetic Island. "Most of us are just talk but too scared to take any action," Herron says. "He did something about his beliefs. He really set an example."