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Julian Assange: Transparency icon or enemy of the state?

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange likened his stay at the Ecuadoran embassy in London to living on a space station
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange likened his stay at the Ecuadoran embassy in London to living on a space station Wikileaks founder Julian Assange likened his stay at the Ecuadoran embassy in London to living on a space station AFP/File
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London (AFP)

A heroic campaigner for openness, or an enemy of the US state trying to avoid justice: after a decade in the limelight, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains a polarising figure.

The 47-year-old Australian was on Thursday arrested by British police at Ecuador's embassy in London, his home since 2012, after it withdrew his asylum status.

Assange lived in a small apartment in the embassy where he sought refuge while facing investigation for sexual assault and rape in Sweden, claims which were later dropped.

He denied the allegations, saying they were politically motivated and expressing fears of a plot to ultimately extradite him to the United States.

At the time, he was famous as the frontman of WikiLeaks as the whistleblowing website exposed government secrets worldwide.

He was applauded by transparency and anti-war campaigners for revealing the death of civilians, torture and clandestine military operations with the release of 500,000 US documents on the Iraq and Afghan wars.

But the United States and its allies accused him of risking lives by revealing information on sources, intelligence techniques and key infrastructure sites.

Human rights groups and newspapers that once worked with Assange to edit and publish the war logs were also horrified when WikiLeaks dumped the documents unredacted online, including the names of informants.

There have since been questions about his relationship with Russia, with WikiLeaks identified in independent prosecutor Robert Mueller's probe into interference in the 2016 US election.

Mueller found that Russian government actors hacked White House hopeful Hillary Clinton's campaign "and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks".

- Exposing 'truth' of war -

Born in Townsville, Queensland, in 1971, Assange has described a nomadic childhood and claims to have attended 37 schools before settling in Melbourne.

As a teenager he discovered a talent for computer hacking, and although he has pleaded guilty to 25 such offences, he has only ever walked away with fines.

He created WikiLeaks in 2006 with a group of like-minded activists and IT experts, to provide a secure way for whistleblowers to leak information.

A confident speaker, he became its figurehead -- and a lightning rod for criticism.

The most damaging leaks emerged in 2010, beginning with a video showing a US military Apache helicopter firing on and killing two journalists and several Iraqi civilians on a Baghdad street in 2007.

It was followed by more than 90,000 classified US military files from the Afghan war, 400,000 from Iraq, and in November that year, around 250,000 US diplomatic cables covering almost every country in the world.

- Facing justice -

He was arrested in Britain in December 2010 and a judge ordered his extradition to Sweden. Although the claims were dropped, he still faced arrest by British police for having jumped bail.

Ecuador's then president, Rafael Correa, said Assange's human rights could be at risk and offered him refuge, but his successor, Lenin Moreno who took office in 2017, has had less patience.

He has accused Assange of interfering in foreign affairs. Ecuador temporarily cut his internet connection last year, and last week said the Australian had "repeatedly violated" the terms of his stay.

In the past, Assange said his time at the embassy was like living in a space station -- he exercised on a treadmill and used a sun lamp to make up for the lack of natural light.

This week, his supporters said it had become a "Truman-show type situation", accusing the Ecuador authorities of gathering thousands of photographs and videos from inside the apartment.

In 2016 a UN panel declared that Assange had been detained arbitrarily, but critics have said his concerns of extradition to the US are unfounded and accused him of seeking to avoid justice.

"WikiLeaks was founded on exposing those who ignored the rule of law. Surely its editor-in-chief should recognise his duty to see it upheld," The Guardian newspaper, which once worked with him to publish the leaks, wrote in 2016.

Assange has, however, found growing growing backing among supporters of Donald Trump, after the US institutions he had exposed began also to investigate the president.

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