James PHEBY –
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 an evasive and polarising figure.
The 47-year-old Australian is again in the headlines after Ecuadoran President Lenin Moreno said he had “repeatedly violated” the conditions of his asylum at the country’s embassy in London.
Assange, who won fame as the frontman of the whistleblowing website as it exposed government secrets worldwide, has lived in the embassy since seeking refuge there in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden. 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, with internal documents showing the US military considered him an “enemy”.
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. He was arrested in Britain in December 2010 on allegations of assault and abuse in Sweden, claims he strongly denied, saying they were politically motivated.
Before the claims were dropped in 2017, Assange expressed fears that any extradition to Sweden could see his eventual transfer to the United States to face trial for the leaks.
He took political refuge in Ecuador’s embassy in London in 2012, but his hosts have grown increasingly irritated by his interventions on foreign affairs.
The Ecuadoran government eventually suspended his Internet access last year, saying he had breached “a written commitment… not to issue messages that might interfere with other states”.
There are also questions about his relationship with Russia, with WikiLeaks identified in Robert Mueller’s probe into interference in the 2016 US election.
According to US Attorney General William Barr’s summary of his report, Mueller found that Russian government actors hacked Hillary Clinton’s campaign “and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks”.
Born in Townsville, Queensland, in 1971, Assange has described a nomadic childhood and claims to have attended 37 schools before settling in Melbourne. — AFP
James PHEBY –