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Julian Assange: Under fire, unrepentant and now unplugged

Mr Assange addressing media from the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in February. He sought political asylum there in 2012 and has not left the premises since, claiming he could be deported.
Mr Assange addressing media from the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in February. He sought political asylum there in 2012 and has not left the premises since, claiming he could be deported.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Last Monday morning, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange woke up in his 4.6m by 4m room at the Ecuadorean embassy in London to find his most crucial connection to the outside world had been severed.

His host of four years, worried that he was trying to tamper with the United States presidential election from his hideout, decided to cut his Internet access.

Mr Assange's whistleblowing website had published more than 30,000 leaked e-mail messages by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton sent from her private e-mail server when she was secretary of state, as well as from the Democratic National Committee and her campaign chair John Podesta. The intention seemed to be to damage her presidential bid.

In the wake of the e-mail dump, Mrs Clinton's campaign has accused WikiLeaks of being "a propaganda arm of the Russian government", trying to push Republican nominee Donald Trump into power.

Mr Assange was once regarded as the anti-establishment hero of whistleblowers and a tireless champion of truth, but the embarrassing rap on the knuckles by his South American guardians has baffled even his most ardent fans, who question his motives for wanting to bring Mrs Clinton down - and, in turn, prop up Mr Trump.

Mr Assange himself has made no bones about his distaste for Mrs Clinton as the next US commander-in-chief. He blames her personality and policy decisions for contributing to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

"She's a war hawk with bad judgment who gets an unseemly emotional rush out of killing people," he said.

The 45-year-old Australian has never been one to mince his words or withhold judgment, much to the chagrin of those who have worked with him - more than a few are now labelled "enemies" by him.

They include The Guardian and The New York Times newspapers, whose partnership with WikiLeaks to publish exposes on leaked classified cables by various US embassies soured over Mr Assange's control of the information.

In his book, Inside Wikileaks: My Time With Julian Assange, WikiLeaks defector Daniel Domscheit-Berg described his former boss as a megalomaniac and an "emperor" who obsessed over money, power and young women.

Born in the north Queensland city of Townsville, Mr Assange studied programming, mathematics and physics at Central Queensland University and the University of Melbourne. He married in his teens and his son Daniel is now a software designer. He fathered more children later, but refuses to talk about them for fear of their safety.

He began computer hacking in 1987 and formed a hacking group called International Subversives, which hacked into the Pentagon, the US Navy and Nasa, among others. He started WikiLeaks in 2006, appointing himself editor-in-chief and publishing secret information leaked by whistleblowers.

But it wasn't until 2010 that the anti-secrecy platform garnered worldwide attention, after it published a damning video of US soldiers shooting at civilians from a helicopter, as well as war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq supplied by US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

Manning was eventually convicted under the Espionage Act, and US prosecutors want to put Mr Assange on trial for similar offences.

In 2012, he walked into the Ecuadorean embassy in London, seeking political asylum after English courts granted extradition to Sweden over allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. He claims that the allegations were politically motivated and that, if he left the embassy, he could eventually be deported to the US to face severe espionage charges.

It has been four years since he made the embassy his home - living in an office converted into a studio with a bed, kitchenette, shower, treadmill and sun lamp, since there is no garden in the compound.The deadlock might finally be broken on Nov 14 when a long-awaited interview by Swedish prosecutors over the rape allegations takes place at the embassy, under the watchful eye of an Ecuadorean prosecutor.

Mr Assange's staunchest supporters are hoping he can finally walk out of the London building a free man and get some much-needed sun. But for the next month at least, the world's most famous anti-secrecy crusader will have to contend with having no Internet connection.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2016, with the headline 'Julian Assange: Under fire, unrepentant and now unplugged'. Print Edition | Subscribe