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WikiLeaks founder Assange: Whistleblower or anti-hero?

As WikiLeaks celebrates its 10th anniversary, its founder Julian Assange remains holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he has lived for more than four years to avoid arrest.

world Updated: Oct 04, 2016 16:12 IST
AFP
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange participates via video link at a news conference marking the 10th anniversary of the group in Berlin on Tuesday. Assange said WikiLeaks plans to start a series of publications this week but wouldn’t specify the timing.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange participates via video link at a news conference marking the 10th anniversary of the group in Berlin on Tuesday. Assange said WikiLeaks plans to start a series of publications this week but wouldn’t specify the timing. (AP)

As WikiLeaks celebrates its 10th anniversary, its founder Julian Assange remains holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he has lived for more than four years to avoid arrest.

To his supporters, the case of the pale, lanky Australian ex-hacker stuck in a cramped office embodies a larger battle pitting hi-tech activists against mighty governments.

Sweden wants him extradited over an allegation of rape, but the 45-year-old and his supporters believe this is a trick to have him extradited to the United States and tried for publishing government secrets.

He has compared living inside the embassy – a gardenless apartment in the plush Knightsbridge district, opposite Harrods department store – to life on a space station.

Assange only very rarely emerges on the embassy balcony, citing concerns for his personal safety, but frequently takes part in media conferences and campaigns via video link.

His radical anti-secrecy agenda has polarised opinion between those who hail him as a hero, and critics who say WikiLeaks has put lives in danger by releasing confidential government documents.

Nomadic childhood

Ironically, Assange himself is highly secretive, although it remains unclear whether this was always so.

Born on July 3, 1971 in Townsville in Queensland, Assange has described a nomadic childhood and claims he attended 37 schools.

Living in Melbourne in the 1980s and 1990s, the teenage Assange discovered a talent for computer hacking.

But he was soon charged with 30 counts of computer crime, including allegedly hacking police and US military computers. He admitted most of the charges and walked away with a fine.

After the launch of WikiLeaks in 2006 he was constantly on the move, bouncing between cities and frequently changing his phone number.

Created by a group of like-minded activists and IT experts, WikiLeaks was built on a simple concept: Through a secure online “drop box,” it would let whistleblowers leak classified information without fear of exposure.

Assange made its first big headlines in April 2010 with the release of footage showing a US helicopter shooting civilians and two Reuters staff in Iraq. And later that year, it captured the world’s attention with a series of mass document “dumps.”

Some 77,000 secret US files on Afghanistan went online in July, followed by 400,000 so-called “Iraq war logs” in October.

The next month, the website caused its biggest shockwaves to date by beginning to publish more than 250,000 diplomatic cables from 274 US embassies.

WikiLeaks won a huge left-of-centre following for its exposure of the secrets of the powerful – but enraged governments, particularly the US, which has mulled legal action against Assange.

@embassycat

Allegations of rape and sexual assault stemming from encounters with two women in Sweden first emerged in August 2010, although the sexual assault accusations have since expired under a statute of limitations.

Just days before WikiLeaks began publishing the diplomatic cables in November 2010, Swedish authorities issued a pan-European warrant for his arrest. Assange was arrested one month later in London.

He has lived in the Ecuadoran embassy since June 2012 after exhausting his British legal options.

Assange has insisted the accusations are politically motivated and could lead to his eventual extradition to the US, where supporters say he could face the death penalty.

A UN panel earlier this year said that Assange had been “arbitrarily detained” and should be able to claim compensation from Britain and Sweden.

Assange has at least two children and said that his cat at the embassy – which he has given the Twitter account @embassycat – was a gift from them.