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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Assange case: UK judge upholds British arrest warrant

The ruling means the WikiLeaks founder — who has been living in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for five-and-a-half years — remains a wanted man

Room with a view: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange emerges onto the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy on February 5, 2016 to address the media in central London. Ben Stansali / AFP
Room with a view: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange emerges onto the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy on February 5, 2016 to address the media in central London. Ben Stansali / AFP

A British judge on Tuesday upheld a UK arrest warrant for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, leaving him still a wanted man in the country where he has spent more than five years inside the Ecuadorean Embassy.

Judge Emma Arbuthnot rejected a call from Mr Assange's lawyers for the warrant to be revoked because he is no longer wanted for questioning in Sweden over alleged sex crimes. It was issued in 2012 for jumping bail.

"I am not persuaded the warrant should be withdrawn," Ms Arbuthnot told lawyers, journalists and Assange supporters gathered at London's Westminster Magistrates' Court.

However, she allowed Mr Assange's lawyer to make a new set of arguments challenging whether it is in the public interest to continue the case against him, and said she would rule on them next week. A decision in Mr Assange's favour would end Britain's case against him.

The 46-year-old has been living in Ecuador's London embassy since he took refuge there in June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where prosecutors were investigating allegations of sexual assault and rape made by two women in 2010.

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Read more:

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Assange may lose Ecuadorean embassy sanctuary

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Swedish prosecutors dropped the case last year, saying there was no prospect of bringing Mr Assange to Sweden in the foreseeable future. But he was still subject to the British warrant for breaching his bail conditions in 2012.

The judge said that if Mr Assange wanted the warrant lifted he should surrender to authorities and come to court. She said he would be able to argue his case and "put an argument for reasonable cause" for breaching his bail conditions.

After the ruling keeping the warrant in place, the judge agreed to let Mr Assange's lawyer, Mark Summers, argue in his client's absence that the warrant should be lifted because it was no longer in the public interest to arrest Mr Assange.

Mr Summers said Mr Assange had several serious health problems, including depression, and argued that the five and a half years he has spent inside the embassy were more than adequate punishment for his actions.

He also cited a UN report in support of his client.

Ms Arbuthnot said she would rule on those arguments on February 13.

Had the judge ruled in Mr Assange's favour on Tuesday, he would have been free to leave the embassy without being arrested on the British warrant.

However, Mr Assange suspects there is a secret US grand jury indictment against him for WikiLeaks' publication of leaked classified American documents, and that authorities in the United States will seek his extradition. He fears he will immediately be taken into custody if he leaves the embassy, sparking what would likely be a long legal battle against extradition to the US.

Another Assange lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, said after the court session that he is willing to face British justice if he receives a guarantee that he will not be sent to the US to face prosecution.

"The British authorities' failure to provide assurance against that risk is the reason he sought asylum in the embassy in the first place," she said. "This is and has always been our overriding concern."

US officials haven't confirmed whether a request for Mr Assange's extradition has been made.

Tuesday's ruling prolongs a stalemate that has kept Mr Assange as Ecuador's houseguest for five-and-a-half years. Last month, Ecuador said it had granted the Australian-born hacker citizenship in a bid to break the logjam.

Ecuador also asked Britain to grant him diplomatic status. But Britain refused, saying "the way to resolve this issue is for Julian Assange to leave the embassy to face justice".

If the British case against Mr Assange is dropped, it might make it easier for him to obtain diplomatic status, which could ease his way for possible travel to Ecuador without risking arrest and extradition proceedings.

British prosecutors had opposed the removal of the warrant, saying Mr Assange shouldn't be immune from the law simply because he has managed to evade justice for a long time.

Extradition lawyer Rebecca Niblock, of the law firm Kingsley Napley, said before the ruling that Mr Assange's legal argument was a long-shot.

"Failing to surrender to bail is like insulting the court's authority" and unlikely to go down well with the court, she said.