Julian Assange: Conspiracy theorist proved right?

by Alice RITCHIE, James PHEBY
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange likened his stay at the Ecuadoran embassy in London to living on a space station

Julian Assange has been widely denounced as a conspiracy theorist fleeing from justice, but the revelation Thursday of a US extradition warrant against the transparency campaigner supports a key reason he gave for going into hiding.

The 47-year-old Australian was on Thursday arrested by British police at Ecuador's embassy in London, where he has been holed up since 2012.

They held him for breaking his bail conditions relating to sexual assault claims lodged in Sweden -- since dropped -- as well as a previously undisclosed US extradition warrant.

Assange had always denied the Swedish allegations, saying they were politically motivated and expressing fears of a plot to transfer him to the United States to face trial there.

At the time the claims were made 2010, he was the frontman of WikiLeaks as the whistleblowing website exposed government secrets worldwide, with particular focus on the US.

Transparency and anti-war campaigners hailed his work 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.

Following his arrest, Wikileaks said that "powerful actors, including CIA, are engaged in a sophisticated effort to dehumanise, delegitimize and imprison him".

- Russia links -

Assange was initially supported by human rights groups and newspapers that once worked with him to edit and publish the war logs.

But many were also horrified when WikiLeaks dumped the documents unredacted online, including the names of informants.

When in 2016 a UN panel declared that Assange had been detained arbitrarily, one of his previous media partners, The Guardian, dismissed the idea and said he should face justice.

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".

- War logs exposed -

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.

- Living in a space station -

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.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange likened his stay at the Ecuadoran embassy in London to living on a space station