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Catch him if you can: the Julian Assange saga

Dario Thuburn, AFP | Julian Assange's agenda has polarised opinion between those who hail him as a hero and critics who claim he endangered lives.

A British court will decide Tuesday whether to lift a UK arrest warrant for Julian Assange, potentially paving the way for the fugitive WikiLeaks founder to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he has spent the last five years.


Assange fled to the Ecuadoran embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced accusations of rape and sexual assault. Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation in May last year, but Assange remained indoors, fearful he would be arrested for breaching his bail the minute he emerged from the embassy.

Assange loses court bid to cancel UK arrest warrant, F24's Benedicte Paviot reports

The 46-year-old and his supporters believe the Swedish case was a trick to have the WikiLeaks founder extradited to the United States, where he is wanted for publishing government secrets. Last year, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Assange's arrest remained a US "priority".

A former hacker, the pale, lanky Australian is at the centre of a dispute that his supporters see as a battle between digital rights crusaders and overbearing governments. He has defied the US army and the CIA with a torrent of damaging leaks that has led some officials in the United States to call for his imprisonment.

And lately he has become embroiled in a row over hacked emails belonging to US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, facing claims of collusion with Russia.

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. Some of the newspaper journalists involved in working with Assange on his first leaks, including from The Guardian and the New York Times, subsequently fell out with him.

Teenage hacker

Assange was born on July 3, 1971, in Townsville, Queensland, in northeastern Australia. He has described a nomadic childhood claiming to have attended a total of 37 schools.

The teenage Assange discovered a talent for computer hacking while living in Melbourne in the 1980s and 1990s. 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 in 2006 with a group of like-minded activists and IT experts, with the goal of providing a secure way for whistleblowers to leak information. The platform 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.

Later that year, WikiLeaks captured the world's attention by publishing 77,000 secret US files on Afghanistan, followed by 400,000 so-called "Iraq war logs". A month later, the website began to publish more than 250,000 diplomatic cables from 274 US embassies.

WikiLeaks won a huge following for its exposure of the secrets of the powerful, particularly among leftwingers. In doing so it has enraged governments, chief among them the United States. That antipathy has only deepened after the Clinton leaks.

In March 2017, WikiLeaks released documents showing how the CIA exploits vulnerabilities in popular computer and networking hardware and software to gather intelligence. The notion that ordinary people were being spied on by electronic appliances such as televisions made headlines around the world.

Ecuadorian citizen

The Swedish allegations against Assange, based on encounters with two women, emerged in August 2010, leading the WikiLeaks founder to land on Interpol’s most-wanted list. He was arrested in London in December that year on a pan-European warrant. A British judge approved his extradition to Sweden in 2011.

After unsuccessful appeals in the UK, Assange applied for political asylum with Ecuador in June 2012 and moved into the country’s London embassy. In 2016, a UN panel ruled that Assange had been "arbitrarily detained" and should be able to claim compensation from Britain and Sweden. Both countries dismissed the report.

Assange has compared living inside the embassy -- a gardenless apartment in London's plush Knightsbridge district, opposite Harrods department store -- to life on a space station. He only very rarely emerges on the balcony, citing concerns for his personal safety, but frequently takes part in media conferences and campaigns via video link.

Relations with Ecuador have frayed in recent months following Assange's outspoken support of Catalonia's separatists, and Quito has warned him to avoid making statements that could harm its international relations. Still, Ecuador’s government revealed in January that it had granted Assange citizenship in a bid to end the impasse over his continued presence in the UK.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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