Julian Assange, founder of the WikiLeaks website that leaked thousands of secret U.S. military and State Department documents, was denied bail by a U.K. judge at an extradition hearing over rape allegations in Sweden.
Assange, 39, will remain in custody at least until his next hearing on Dec. 14, Judge Howard Riddle ruled today at City of Westminster Magistrate’s Court in London. Assange told the court he will fight the extradition.
“These are serious sexual offenses” and Assange has “weak community ties” and access to significant funds, Riddle said of his reasons for denying bail. He said the case isn’t about WikiLeaks, where Assange is editor-in-chief.
WikiLeaks drew condemnation for posting classified documents on its website, including U.S. embassy communications and a military video of a July 2007 helicopter attack in Iraq that killed a Reuters television cameraman and his driver. Created in 2006, WikiLeaks receives confidential material and posts it on the Internet “so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth,” according to its website.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference on Nov. 29 that the Justice Department was conducting a criminal investigation into the release of government documents, saying such leaks put lives at risk. The U.S. embassy in London said it didn’t send a representative to today’s hearing.
Mark Stephens, Assange’s lawyer with the firm Finers Stephens Innocent LLP in London, told reporters outside court that the bail ruling was “unfortunate” and that many people believe the allegations are politically motivated.
“We are in the rather exotic position of not seeing any of the evidence” against Assange, Stephens said. “It’s very hard to prepare a bail application under those circumstances.” Stephens regularly represents media organizations, including Bloomberg News.
Assange was arrested “by appointment” today at 9:30 a.m. after Swedish police issued a European arrest warrant. His surrender to police followed a warrant on one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one count of rape allegedly committed in August 2010, police said.
Prosecutors at the hearing said some claims relate to whether Assange failed to use condoms during sex and may have exploited a woman while she was sleeping. The alleged crimes took place in Stockholm and Enkoeping, while Assange was lecturing about the publication of classified U.S. military documents related to the war in Afghanistan.
MasterCard Inc., the world’s second-biggest payments network, and London-based Visa Europe Ltd. are suspending payments to WikiLeaks via their systems, the companies said. MasterCard and Visa Europe are following the lead of EBay Inc. unit PayPal, which recently cut access to WikiLeaks for violating the online payment processor’s acceptable use policy.
Stephens, Assange’s lawyer, said the website will continue operating and release more documents.
“Assange’s likelihood of success in fighting extradition is very low,” said Peter Watson, a lawyer with Allen & Overy LLP in London. “The European arrest warrant is a deliberately speedy process, free from political interference and with very narrow grounds on which to challenge.”
Watson said Assange’s prospects for winning bail next week are equally low because the U.K. would likely want Sweden to decide on bail, rather than risk losing a prisoner.
“In an extradition proceeding, flight risk concerns are even greater,” Helen Malcolm, a lawyer with Three Raymond Buildings in London, said in an interview. “Nobody can be unaware that he may be wanted in America, if not now then soon, which gives him a strong impetus to escape.”
Gemma Lindfield, a lawyer for the U.K. government, argued in court against bail for Assange citing his “nomadic lifestyle.”
“This is somebody who is unable to provide an address that he will stay at for the proceedings,” Lindfield said.
“I have a very high regard for him,” Pilger told Riddle. “I’m here today because the charges against him in Sweden are absurd, and were judged as absurd by the chief prosecutor” until a “senior political figure intervened.”
The arrest warrant was sought by prosecutor Marianne Ny, who started her investigation on Sept. 1 after a Stockholm-based prosecutor dropped the rape charge and reduced the molestation charges. A lawyer for the two alleged victims appealed that decision.
Ny, who heads an office in Gothenburg that handles appeals involving prosecutor decisions in sex-crime cases, said today’s arrest was a prerequisite for her case to move forward.
“I want to make it clear that I haven’t been subjected to any kind of pressure, political or otherwise,” Ny said in a statement on the office’s website. “I am prosecuting based on suspicions of sex crimes that were committed in Sweden.”
Assange, born in Townsville, Australia, began as a computer hacker in his native country and pleaded guilty in 1996 to 24 counts of violating the Crimes Act by accessing and inserting information into computers, including those of Nortel Networks Corp. He received a fine and three years probation.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at firstname.lastname@example.org.