Assange arrest ends years cooped up in embassy

Joe JACKSON
Assange was last seen in public in May 2017, giving a clenched fist salute from the balcony of his living quarters (AFP Photo/Justin TALLIS)

London (AFP) - During his nearly seven years holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, devoid of sunlight, exercise and companions, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange lived like a recluse.

Visibly ageing and suffering from deteriorating physical and psychological health, the 47-year-old Australian adopted a subsistence lifestyle, with just a cat for daily company.

That ended on Thursday when police dragged the whistleblower from his diplomatic home -- his worn face now framed by a bushy white beard and his signature silver hair worn in a ponytail.

Assange sought asylum in the embassy in June 2012 after a British judge ruled he should be extradited to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault.

He was last seen in public in May 2017, giving a clenched fist salute from the cramped flat's balcony after Swedish prosecutors dropped the rape investigation against him.

- 'My mind is not confined' -

In the first year of his stay, Britain had maintained a 24-hour police guard at the doors of the embassy -- reportedly costing British taxpayers millions of pounds.

Stuck inside, the former computer hacker was forced to call home a room measuring 18 square metres (190 square feet) and comprising a bed, computer, shower and microwave.

He reportedly divided the space into an office and a living area, exercising on a small running machine and using a sun lamp to make up for the lack of natural light.

He would occasionally entertain visitors, ranging from diplomats and journalists to celebrities like Vivienne Westwood and Pamela Anderson.

The whistleblower only very rarely emerged onto the balcony, citing concerns for his personal safety.

He compared his plight to living on a space station -- despite being just around the corner from luxury department store Harrods.

"My mind is not confined," Assange told AFP in 2013.

"The physical circumstances are difficult. However, I'm working every day."

He spent much of his time working on his computer and online, tweeting and taking part in media conferences and campaigns via video link.

At times he also contributed to RT, a Russian state-owned television channel.

- 'Akin to imprisonment' -

But the years of captivity eventually took their toll on Assange's physical and mental health.

His lawyers repeatedly went to court to ask unsuccessfully for British prosecutors to remove the arrest warrant hanging over him for breaching bail.

They argued his conditions were "akin to imprisonment".

Noting a 2016 UN panel ruling that he was being detained arbitrarily, they said that without access to adequate medical care or sunlight, his continued confinement imperilled his life.

In one hearing they complained he was suffering from a bad tooth, a frozen shoulder and depression.

- Cat fight -

Meanwhile, relations with his Ecuadoran hosts also began to suffer.

Quito cut his internet and mobile phone access last year, accusing him of breaking "a written commitment" not to interfere in its and allies' foreign policies.

The move infuriated Assange, who sued the government for violating his "fundamental rights" by limiting his access to the outside world.

He also complained the embassy was requiring his visitors -- including journalists and lawyers -- to disclose "private or political details such as their social media usernames".

Another point of friction became a cat given to Assange in 2016 -- for which he soon created a spoof Twitter account with the handle @EmbassyCat.

A Quito memo leaked to the country's media showed officials had concerns for the "well-being, food, hygiene, and proper care" of the cat, and warned it could be removed to a shelter.