WikiLeaks Shouldn’t Affect Assange Bail, Lawyer Says
Julian Assange’s bid for bail shouldn’t be influenced by the ongoing controversy over WikiLeaks’ posting of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic communications, his lawyer said.
Assange, who was initially denied bail after his arrest last week, will offer to wear a tracking device while fighting extradition to Sweden in a rape probe, said his lawyer, Mark Stephens. He is presenting a second bail application to Judge Howard Riddle in London today.
“This is the curious case of WikiLeaks, and it clearly has a bearing on the way in which cases are dealt with,” Stephens said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “On the Move” with Francine Lacqua. “But I hope the British judiciary have the spine and backbone to deal with him independently.”
Assange, 39, turned himself in to U.K. authorities and was arrested after Swedish police issued a warrant on one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one count of rape allegedly committed in August, police said. Riddle turned down Assange’s initial request for bail at a hearing last week, saying he was a flight risk.
Prosecutor Gemma Lindfield asked Riddle to deny bail for Assange, saying two offenses were allegedly committed in a short period of time and that Assange has too few ties to the community. He could abscond, she said. Lindfield said she is unable to say how strong the evidence is against Assange.
Assange’s lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, is also in court.
‘Most Recognizable Person’
“The chances of him running away, particularly given that he’s probably the most recognizable person on the planet at the moment, are very rare,” Stephens said. He regularly represents media organizations, including Bloomberg News.
WikiLeaks drew condemnation for posting thousands of classified documents on its website, including U.S. embassy communications and a video of a July 2007 helicopter attack in Iraq that killed a Reuters television cameraman and his driver. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Nov. 29 that the Justice Department was conducting an investigation into the release of government documents, saying such leaks put lives at risk.
While Stephens is hopeful his client will be granted bail, he said fighting the extradition may be more difficult. The European Union arrest warrant process limits the options available to Assange, he said.
Under the warrant, “the court in this country has got a very narrow remit,” said Stephens. “Once the boxes are filled in, there are very limited circumstances on which you can validly challenge it.”
The rape case could be complicated if the U.S. files criminal charges over the leaks and challenges Sweden for the right to extradite Assange, who is Australian.
The judge will “try and define the issues as between the parties and thereby get to a time estimate for the substantive hearing” in the case, which will likely take place in January or February, Stephens said in a separate e-mailed statement.
Assange’s mother, Christine Assange, told Australia’s Channel 7 television that her son made a statement from jail, in which he called Visa Inc., MasterCard Inc. and the Internet payment provider PayPal Inc. of being “instruments of U.S. foreign policy” after they suspended payments to WikiLeaks via their networks.
Stephens, responding to the report, said the companies breached their contracts.
Targeting WikiLeaks’ financing is a form of censorship usually used by “Third World countries and totalitarian regimes,” Stephens said today in a phone interview. “Nothing WikiLeaks does is illegal and there’s no reason to breach the contract.”
Prosecutors at last week’s 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, Sweden, while Assange was lecturing about the publication of classified U.S. military documents related to the war in Afghanistan.
Neill Blundell, a lawyer who leads the fraud practice at Eversheds LLP in London, also said it’s unlikely that Assange will be granted bail at today’s hearing.
Assange “faces serious charges relating to alleged sex crimes,” said Blundell, who isn’t involved in the case. “The court would want substantial sureties perhaps running to 1 million pounds, electronic tagging and an address suitable to the court.”
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.
Stephens said Assange has tried repeatedly to meet with the Swedish prosecutor when he was in Sweden and that she hasn’t directly provided evidence against him, such as text messages between the two alleged victims.
Stephens said the Swedish case may be politically motivated due to the WikiLeaks disclosures. Created in 2006, WikiLeaks receives confidential material and posts it online “so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth,” according to its website.
“One doesn’t know what the ultimate motives are; they seem to be dark,” Stephens said. “There was political interference in the process.”
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