Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's anti-secrecy agenda has polarised opinion
LONDON (AFP) - A United Nations report on Friday calling for Julian Assange's "detention" to be brought to an end is the latest twist in a long-running case pitting hi-tech activists against mighty governments.
At the heart of it is a pale, lanky Australian ex-hacker who has been holed up for three and a half years in a cramped office at Ecuador's embassy in London to avoid being arrested by British police.
Sweden wants him extradited over an allegation of rape, but the 44-year-old and his supporters believe this is a trick to have him extradited to the United States and tried for publishing government secrets.
He has compared living inside the embassy -- a gardenless apartment in the plush Knightsbridge district, opposite Harrods department store -- to life on a space station.
Assange only very rarely emerges on the embassy balcony, citing concerns for his personal safety, but frequently takes part in media conferences and campaigns via video link.
His radical anti-secrecy agenda has polarised opinion between those who hail him as a hero and critics who say WikiLeaks has put lives in danger by releasing 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.
Assange 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 to date by beginning to publish more than 250,000 diplomatic cables from 274 US embassies.
- Nomadic childhood -
WikiLeaks won a huge left-of-centre following for its exposure of the secrets of the powerful -- but enraged governments, particularly the United States, which has mulled legal action against Assange.
Allegations of rape and sexual assault stemming from encounters with two women in Sweden first emerged in August 2010, although the sexual assault accusations have since expired under a statute of limitations.
Just days before WikiLeaks began publishing the diplomatic cables in November 2010, Swedish authorities issued a pan-European warrant for his arrest.
Assange was arrested one month later in London.
He has insisted the accusations are politically motivated and could lead to his eventual extradition to the United States, where supporters say he could face the death penalty.
He finally fled to the Ecuadoran embassy in 2012 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.
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.