x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

WikiLeaks founder Assange granted bail despite prosecution fear

Until the full extradition hearing early in the new year he will be electronically tagged and will have to report daily to police.

Julian Assange celebrates outside the High Court in central London after being granted bail yesterday.
Julian Assange celebrates outside the High Court in central London after being granted bail yesterday.

LONDON // Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, was a free man last night after finally winning his battle to be bailed in Britain on sex assault charges brought in Sweden.

The 39-year-old Australian, whose organisation is in the throes of releasing up to 250,000 US diplomatic cables, had been held in isolation in a London prison since his arrest on a Swedish warrant 10 days earlier.

Mr Assange said: "I hope to continue my work and continue to protest my innocence in this matter and to reveal as we get it - which we have not yet - the evidence from these allegations," speaking on the steps of the High Court in London.

Although he was granted bail on sureties of £240,000 (Dh1.38 million) at a hearing on Tuesday of this week, English prosecutors had appealed against the decision after consulting their Swedish counterparts.

The move was regarded by Mr Assange's legal team and many of his supporters worldwide as confirmation that the prosecution, arising out of "one night stands" he had had with two women while attending a conference in Stockholm in August, was an attempt to silence his whistle-blowing.

They also fear that, if he is extradited to Sweden, he could face a second, rapid extradition to the United States for trial under the Espionage Act.

After yesterday's hearing, Mark Stephens, Mr Assange's lawyer, said he was "utterly delighted" to win bail, adding that his client was the victim of a "continuing vendetta".

During the two-hour hearing yesterday, Gemma Lindfield, a barrister appearing for the prosecutors, told the judge, Justice (Duncan) Ouseley, that there was "a real risk" that Mr Assange would abscond if granted bail.

She maintained that there were "strong reasons" to believe Mr Assange would fail to attend a full extradition hearing on the sex charges, and that he would fail to surrender to police if extradition were ordered. She also maintained that, given the support he enjoyed worldwide, Mr Assange had "the means and ability" to flee the country.

But the judge rejected her arguments, saying that Mr Assange had been aware that charges were being made against him in Sweden shortly after he arrived in the UK and that, when the European Arrest Warrant was issued to Scotland Yard at the start of last week, he promptly surrendered to police.

"That is not the conduct of a person who is seeking to evade justice," the judge said.

Mr Assange was described by Justice Ouseley as "a well-known face" who clearly wanted to clear his name.

The judge said that the strict bail conditions imposed earlier in the week, including the posting of a £200,000 cash deposit, made it appropriate to grant bail.

When news filtered out of court, a small group of Assange supporters who had gathered in the driving rain, roared their support and chanted: "Exposing war crimes is no crime."

The novelist Tariq Ali, one of the celebrities standing surety for Mr Assange, an Australian, said as he left court: "The atmosphere in court was one of general relief and smiles all around.

"Mr Assange smiled as well. His mother looked very relieved."

John Pilger, a veteran journalist and campaigner who is another high-profile Briton standing surety, added: "The fact that Julian Assange was refused bail was a gross injustice that has been corrected today, at least in a limited way."

Mr Assange will now live at the country home of Vaughan Smith, a journalist and London restaurateur, until the full extradition hearing early in the new year. He will be electronically tagged and will have to report daily to police.

Mr Assange denies the accusations of rape and molestation made by the Swedish women, one of whom alleges he did not wear a condom when she insisted he should, while the other claims he had unprotected sex with her while she slept.