LONDON – (AFP) – When WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange walked into Ecuador’s London embassy and claimed asylum, it was just the latest twist in a thriller pitting hi-tech activists against the mighty United States.
The Australian ex-hacker, whose website has enraged the US by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret files, has been holed up in the embassy since June 19 in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden over alleged sex crimes.
Ecuador granted him asylum on Thursday — setting the scene for a diplomatic showdown with Britain, which has threatened to enter the embassy and arrest Assange.
Eccentric and lanky with a shock of platinum hair, 41-year-old Assange is no stranger to controversy.
His radical anti-secrecy agenda has polarised opinion between those hailing him as a hero and critics who say WikiLeaks has put lives in danger by flooding the Internet with confidential government documents.
Ironically, Assange himself is highly secretive. After the launch of WikiLeaks in 2006 he was constantly on the move, bouncing between cities and frequently changing his phone number.
Created by a group of like-minded activists and IT experts, WikiLeaks was built on a simple concept: through a secure online “drop box”, it would let whistleblowers leak classified information without fear of exposure.
“We are creating a new standard for a free press,” Assange told AFP in an interview in August 2010.
WikiLeaks 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.
And later that year, it captured the world’s attention with a series of mass document “dumps”.
Some 77,000 secret US files on Afghanistan went online in July, followed by 400,000 so-called “Iraq war logs” in October. The next month, the website caused its biggest shockwaves yet by beginning to publish more than 250,000 diplomatic cables from 274 US embassies.
WikiLeaks won a huge left-of-centre following for its exposure of the secrets of the powerful — but enraged governments, particularly the US, which has mulled legal action against Assange.
Assange was meanwhile falling out spectacularly with a string of “partner” media organisations involved in the releases, including The New York Times and The Guardian in Britain.
In their book on WikiLeaks, Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding recalled how Assange responded to the risk that the US government’s Afghan informants could be killed if their names were published online.
“Well, they’re informants,” Assange allegedly replied. “So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.”
But allegations of rape and sexual assault stemming from encounters with two women in Sweden first emerged in August 2010.
Then, just days before WikiLeaks began publishing the diplomatic cables in November 2010, Swedish authorities issued a European warrant for his arrest.
Assange was arrested one month later in London. He has fought a nearly two-year legal battle against the claims, insisting they are politically motivated and could lead to his eventual extradition to the US.
Supporters fear he could face the death penalty there, and point to US authorities’ harsh treatment of Bradley Manning, the army private on trial for allegedly handing a vast cache of US military files to WikiLeaks.
Assange’s mother Christine told AFP this month that Washington wanted to try her son “for doing the job of a good investigative journalist, which is telling the truth about power”.
He finally fled to the Ecuadoran embassy when he exhausted his British legal options.
Born on July 3, 1971 in Townsville in Queensland, Assange has described a nomadic childhood and claims he attended 37 schools.
In one memorable incident he described getting into trouble after hitting a girl’s head with a hammer at primary school — adding that she was unharmed.
Living in Melbourne in the 1990s, the teenage Assange discovered a talent for computer hacking.
But he was soon 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.