WikiLeaks' Assange, an enigma with a mission

Julian Assange, who was arrested for rape on Tuesday, has worked hard to keep his own private life shrouded in mystery as his WikiLeaks website spills the beans on US diplomacy.

world Updated: Dec 07, 2010 18:38 IST

Julian Assange, who was arrested for rape on Tuesday, has worked hard to keep his own private life shrouded in mystery as his WikiLeaks website spills the beans on US diplomacy.

The 39-year-old Australian, the founder and frontman of the whistleblowing site, was virtually unknown at the beginning of this year but is now one of the world's most talked about figures.

"We are creating a new standard for free press," Assange told AFP during an interview in August, adding that "by doing so, we are hoping to liberalise the press across the world."

Yet while Assange may have transformed into a champion of transparency, he keeps his own life tightly under wraps, divulging little about himself.

He even managed to keep his date of birth secret until Interpol divulged it was July 3, 1971, when issuing an international arrest warrant at the request of Sweden, where he is wanted for rape and other sex crimes.

Born in Townsville, northeastern Australia, Assange says he spent his early childhood living on and off on the nearby Magnetic Island with his mother.

Assange has described his childhood as nomadic, saying in all he attended 37 different schools.

Living in Melbourne in the 1990s, the teenage Assange discovered a new talent: hacking.

But his new interest did not go undetected and he was 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 his brush with the law, Assange says he worked in a number of different fields, as a security consultant, a researcher in journalism and started his own IT company.

He says he founded WikiLeaks in 2006 with around 10 others from the human rights, media and technology fields, although no other co-founder is publicly known.

The site went online in 2007 and began leaking secret documents well before its master stroke of releasing some 77,000 secret US files on Afghanistan in July this year.

That first mega-leak was followed in October by the release of some 400,000 so-called "Iraq war logs" and since November 28 by the slow release of around 250,000 diplomatic cables from 274 US embassies.

Assange insists on the importance of the website's revelations and their implications, going so far as to call for US President Barack Obama to resign if it is proven he approved the spying by US diplomats on UN officials, unveiled in the latest batch of files.

At the head of WikiLeaks, Assange has until his arrest seemed to lead a life out of a spy novel: constantly on the move, bouncing from capital to capital and staying with supporters and friends of friends, consistently switching his phone number.

Assange is thin, almost lanky, his boyish face topped by a short crop of platinum hair.

While he speaks cautiously in a calm, controlled tone, he has a temper, storming out of a CNN interview when asked about the rape claim.

The allegations, which stem from encounters with two women during a stay in Stockholm in August, eventually led Sweden to issue an international arrest warrant for him last month.

The WikiLeaks founder, who on Monday saw his Swiss bank account closed on the grounds he gave false information when establishing it, is also facing trouble from within his organisation.

A former WikiLeaks spokesman, Daniel Domscheit-Berg of Germany, had a very public fallout with Assange at the end of September, criticising his "authoritarian" ways.

One former supporter in Iceland, Herbert Snorrason, told AFP last week he and other ex-members, including Domscheit-Berg, were preparing to launch an alternative to WikiLeaks.

First Published: Dec 07, 2010 18:34 IST