British Judge Denies Bail For WikiLeaks Founder
A British judge has denied bail for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who told a London court that he intends to fight attempts to extradite him to Sweden on sex-crime allegations.
Judge Howard Riddle told Assange that he had "substantial grounds" to believe the 39-year-old Australian wouldn't turn up for subsequent proceedings. He then put Assange into U.K. custody ahead of an extradition hearing next Tuesday. Analysts say his extradition case could drag on for weeks, if not months.
The hearing took place hours after Assange was arrested in a prearranged handover at a London police station on a Swedish warrant over allegations of sexual assault, Scotland Yard said. The former computer hacker had been in hiding since his website released secret U.S. diplomatic cables.
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Assange was asked at Westminster Magistrate's Court whether he understood that he could consent to be extradited on the sex charges. He cleared his throat and replied: "I understand that, and I do not consent."
Supporters protested outside the court, bearing signs reading, "Save Wikileaks, Save Free Speech'' and "Trumped Up Charges.''
If the judge in London finds there is a credible case and that the European arrest warrant is legally valid, Assange could be extradited to Sweden, but that could "be quite a long, drawn-out process" taking months, NPR's Philip Reeves said.
During the hourlong court hearing in London, attorney Gemma Lindfield, acting on behalf of the Swedish authorities, outlined the allegations of rape, molestation and unlawful coercion that were brought against Assange following separate sexual encounters in August with two women in Sweden.
Lindfield said one woman accused Assange of pinning her down and refusing to use a condom on the night of Aug. 14 in Stockholm. That woman also accused of Assange of molesting her in a way "designed to violate her sexual integrity'' several days later. A second woman accused Assange of having sex with her without a condom while he was a guest at her Stockholm home and she was asleep.
A person who has sex with an unconscious, drunk or sleeping person in Sweden can be convicted of rape and sentenced to two to six years in prison.
Assange's lawyers have claimed the accusations stem from disputes "over consensual but unprotected sex'' and say the women made the claims only after finding out that Assange had slept with both.
Mark Stephens, Assange's British attorney, said they would appeal the judge's refusal to grant bail.
"Many people will come forward to stand as sureties for Mr. Assange," Stephens said outside court. "Many people believe Mr. Assange to be innocent -- myself included -- and many people believe that this prosecution is politically motivated."
Six people were in court offering to put up thousands of dollars for his release. Among them were the movie director Ken Loach, campaigning journalist John Pilger and the heiress Jemima Khan.
The Pentagon welcomed Assange's arrest.
"That sounds like good news to me,'' U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on a visit to Afghanistan.
WikiLeaks said the arrest is an attack on media freedom and that it will not stop the release of more sensitive files. "Today's actions against our editor-in-chief Julian Assange won't affect our operations: we will release more cables tonight as normal," the site stated on its Twitter page.
As if to underline the point, WikiLeaks released a cache of a dozen new diplomatic cables, its first publication in more than 24 hours.
Lawyers for Assange called the arrest a political stunt to ultimately get him to the U.S., where he could face espionage charges. The U.S. and Sweden have an extradition treaty that has been in force since 1963, but it does not cover the crime of espionage.
Jennifer Robinson said the way in which her client was pursued by authorities was "disproportionate."
"Mr. Assange still has not seen the full allegations against him and all the potential charges against him in a language that he understands, which is English," she said, adding that it was "in clear breach of ... the European Convention on Human Rights."
Since last week's release of diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks has seen its bank accounts canceled, its website attacked and a criminal investigation launched by the U.S. government saying the group has jeopardized national security and diplomatic efforts around the world. It has also seen supporters come to its aid by setting up more than 500 mirror sites worldwide.
WikiLeaks has angered the U.S. government by releasing tens of thousands of secret U.S. military documents, followed by the ongoing release of what it says will eventually be a quarter-million cables from U.S. diplomatic posts around the world. It provided those documents to five newspapers, which have been working with WikiLeaks to edit the cables for publication.
A backlash against WikiLeaks began with an effort to jam the website as the cables were being released. U.S. Internet companies Amazon.com Inc., EveryDNS and PayPal Inc. then severed their links with WikiLeaks in quick succession, forcing it to jump to new servers and adopt a new primary Web address — wikileaks.ch — in Switzerland.
Swiss authorities closed Assange's bank account Monday, and MasterCard and Visa have reportedly pulled the plug on payments to WikiLeaks. A European representative for MasterCard didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.
Earlier Tuesday, a court in France ruled that WikiLeaks could not be summarily denied the use of a French Internet service provider. The case stemmed from the French government's alleged attempt to threaten provider OVH if it allowed the organization to use its service.
Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006, creating a web-based "dead letter drop" for would-be leakers. Before the latest leak, the website had some five full-time staff, several dozen active volunteers and 800 part-time volunteers.
With reporting from Frank Browning in Paris and Larry Miller and NPR's Philip Reeves in London. This story also contains material from The Associated Press.