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August 17, 2018

Julian Assange: WikiLeaks' fugitive anti-hero

Julian Assange: WikiLeaks' fugitive anti-hero

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the infamous whistleblower and fugitive who lost a bid on Tuesday to have his UK arrest warrant cancelled, has become a divisive figure during a decade of leaks, disagreements and evading Western governments' reach.

The 46-year-old former hacker is a heroic figurehead for digital rights crusaders part of his radical anti-secrecy agenda confronting powerful institutions.

America and its allies view the Australian as a dangerous leaker of confidential documents who imperils lives, and US Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year declared him a "priority" for prosecution.

But this polarising personality has remained undeterred, despite being ensconced in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for five years after fleeing there to evade extradition to Sweden over a rape probe.

Assange maintains the case is linked to his whistleblowing activities and would lead to his eventual transfer to America.

"We believe in what we're doing," he said during a 2016 interview with German news weekly Der Spiegel. "The attacks only make us stronger."

- Powerful enemies -

Since launching WikiLeaks in 2006, Assange has taken on the US army and the Central Intelligence Agency with a torrent of damaging leaks.

This included posting a damning video in 2010 showing a US military helicopter firing on and killing two journalists and several Iraqi civilians.

It followed up by dumping online 400,000 other so-called "Iraq war logs", tens of thousands of classified Afghan war documents and in 2011 a quarter million diplomatic cables from 274 US embassies.

Assange in 2016 hailed the latter "the most important single collection of material we have published".

More recently he became embroiled in the last American presidential election, after releasing emails from the Democratic National Committee showing favouritism towards Hillary Clinton.

Despite declaring during the campaign that he loved WikiLeaks, the administration of US President Donald Trump has said it is now preparing charges against Assange.

- 'The road is far from over' -

Assange was arrested in London in December 2010 on a pan-European warrant after rape allegations in Sweden, based on encounters with two women, emerged in August of that year.

A British judge approved his extradition to Sweden in 2011, and after unsuccessful appeals, he applied for political asylum with Ecuador in June 2012 and moved into the embassy.

Although Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation in May last year, citing statutes of limitation, Assange has remained inside fearing arrest by British police for breaching his bail conditions.

"The road is far from over," he said after Swedish prosecutors announced the end of their probe. "The war, the proper war, is just commencing."

He has remained busy in the embassy releasing new leaks, taking part in conferences and campaigns via video link, and conducting media interviews.

Increasingly pale, he rarely emerges on its balcony, citing concerns for his personal safety.

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

A United Nations panel ruled in 2016 that Assange had been "arbitrarily detained" by Sweden and Britain.

The finding, which is not legally binding, was upheld on appeal.

- Assange the diplomat -

Relations have also occasionally frayed with his Ecuadorian hosts.

After Assange spoke out in support of Catalonia's separatists, Quito warned him to avoid making statements that could harm its international relations.

The country granted him citizenship in December in a bid to end the saga by getting him recognised as a diplomat.

That would have ensured passage out of the embassy without arrest, but Britain refused the request.

Supporters still believe that once Assange is in custody, America will force his extradition there on charges of publishing government secrets.

- Nomadic childhood -

Born in Townsville, Queensland, in 1971, he has described a nomadic childhood and claims to have attended 37 schools.

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

He was soon charged with 30 counts of computer crime, including allegedly hacking police and US military computers, but walked away with a fine.

He created WikiLeaks with a group of like-minded activists and IT experts, with the goal of providing a secure way for whistleblowers to leak information.

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