WikiLeaks Founder Assange Behind Bars In Britain

8 Dec

LONDON: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was refused bail on Tuesday by a British judge over claims of sex crimes in Sweden, dealing a fresh blow to the website which vowed to stay online and reveal more US secrets.

The elusive 39-year-old Australian said he would fight an extradition request by Swedish authorities as he appeared in court in London just hours after he emerged from a month in hiding and surrendered to police.

Filmmaker Ken Loach, socialite Jemima Khan, and campaigning journalist John Pilger each offered to put up part of his bail but a judge in London refused, saying a court would review the situation at a hearing on December 14.

“I am satisfied that there are substantial grounds to believe that if granted bail he would fail to surrender,” district judge Howard Riddle said at City of Westminster magistrates court.

The judge said the Swedish arrest warrant contains “extremely serious allegations” of molestation, unlawful coercion and rape involving two women with whom Assange had sex in Stockholm in August.

Assange had the “means and ability to abscond if he wants to,” Riddle added.

The WikiLeaks boss, who has denied the charges, appeared calm and collected in court, an AFP reporter said. Wearing a navy blue suit and a white shirt without a tie, he spoke to confirm his name and address in Australia.

Britain's Metropolitan Police said earlier in a statement that officers from its extradition unit had arrested Assange on a European arrest warrant “by appointment at a London police station” at 0930 GMT.

WikiLeaks criticised the court ruling as “bizarre” and said it would release more documents later Tuesday from the cache of 250,000 confidential US diplomatic cables that it started to publish on November 28.

“Let down by the UK justice system's bizarre decision to refuse bail to Julian Assange. But Cablegate releases continue as planned,” the whistleblowing website said on its Twitter page.

Assange's Lawyer Mark Stephens told journalists outside court the allegations were “politically motivated”, adding that he expected a “viral campaign” on the Internet on his client's behalf.

“We have heard the judge say he wishes to see the evidence himself. I think he was impressed by the fact that a number of people were prepared to stand up on behalf of Mr Assange and declare his innocence,” he said.

Loach, Khan – former wife of Pakistan cricket great Imran Khan and one-time girlfriend of film star Hugh Grant – and Pilger each offered 20,000 pounds (23,600 euros, 31,400 dollars). Another three donors also offered a total of 120,000 pounds between them.

Pilger told the court the case was “a travesty” and “absurd”. After the hearing, he said: “This is a man who has made some very serious enemies for the best reasons.”

WikiLeaks is battling to stay afloat after infuriating Washington with the release of the cables, which have revealed a string of diplomatic embarrassments from all corners of the globe.

In one of the latest leaks, US cables released on Tuesday showed that NATO had extended an existing defence plan covering Poland to include Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after they lobbied for extra protection.

The website has been forced to hop from server to server as various countries tried to close it down and hackers attacked it, though its supporters have responded by setting up hundreds of “mirror” sites to keep it online.

In a sign of Washington's satisfaction at the arrest, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who was visiting Afghanistan on Tuesday, said it “sounds like good news.”

WikiLeaks is also coming under increased financial pressure, with Visa following in the footsteps of MasterCard and PayPal Tuesday by announcing that it was suspending all payments to WikiLeaks.

Swiss authorities shut down one of Assange's bank accounts on Monday, while a major WikiLeaks donor in Germany is in trouble for not filing its accounts on time.

WikiLeaks has already been expelled from the United States where Attorney General Eric Holder has said authorities were pursuing an “active, ongoing investigation that is criminal in nature” into the leaks.

In an opinion piece for The Australian newspaper after his arrest, Assange said the website was “fearlessly” pursuing facts in the public interest.

– AFP/de

Channel News Asia


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