7 Dec 2010

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange refused bail

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is refused bail after appearing in a London court over sex crime allegations originating in Sweden. His lawyer tells Channel 4 News that “darker forces” are at work.

Mr Assange was arrested by Scotland Yard’s extradition unit when he attended a central London police station by appointment this morning.

He is accused by the Swedish authorities of one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one count of rape, all alleged to have been committed in August 2010.

The 39-year-old Australian appeared before District Judge Howard Riddle at City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court this afternoon but was denied bail and was remanded in custody at Wandsworth jail until 14 December.

He was refused bail on the grounds there was a risk he would fail to surrender, despite Jemima Khan, the sister of Tory MP Zac Goldsmith, film director Ken Loach and veteran journalist John Pilger all offering to stand as bail surety for Mr Assange.

He was asked whether he understood that he could consent to be extradited to Sweden, to which he answered: “I understand that and I do not consent.”

Channel 4 News discovered that Mr Assange sought Australian consular assistance as early as yesterday morning.

The Australian High Commission in London confirmed that it was helping Mr Assange and his lawyers and would be present at court, along with Mr Assange’s lawyers, Mark Stephens and Jennifer Robinson.

Julian Assange driven into Westminster Magistrates after arrest (PA Photos)

Mark Stephens said that a renewed bail application would be made and told reporters outside the court that “many people believe this prosecution is politically-motivated.”

In an interview with Channel 4 News, Mr Stephens said he and is client still did not know the details of the charges against Mr Assange.

“We still don’t know what the allegations are,” he told Jon Snow. “He is only wanted for questioning and there is a lot of doubt whether you can get an extradition warrant merely for questioning.”

Mr Stephens said that the allegations had been dismissed by Sweden’s most senior prosecutor in August, but had been revived by another lawyer.

“I think there are darker forces,” he said. “We are now seeing these warrants coming out suspiciously close to the release of the cables.

“People have understood for the first time that there is something wrong here. It isn’t in the state of Denmark, it is in the state of Sweden and people are starting to stand up and be counted.”

His supporters were protesting outside the court under the banner of ‘Justice for Assange’.

The news of his arrest was greeted by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates during his trip to Afghanistan.

He said: “I hadn’t heard that, but that sounds like good news to me.”

Despite Mr Assange’s court appearance, a spokesperson for WikiLeaks said today that the organisation will continue to release the leaked US embassy cables.

Today, Mr Assange had an editorial comment published on newspaper The Australian's website.

In the piece, he denied claims that he is anti-war, condemned Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard for attempting to "save her own skin" and justified WikiLeaks for "reporting the truth".

He wrote: "People have said I am anti-war: for the record, I am not. Sometimes nations need to go to war, and there are just wars. But there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about those wars, then asking these same citizens to put their lives and their taxes on the line for those lies. If a war is justified, then tell the truth and the people will decide whether to support it."

In a stinging criticism of Ms Gillard, Mr Assange wrote: "Australians should observe with no pride the disgraceful pandering to these sentiments by Prime Minister Gillard and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have not had a word of criticism for the other media organisations.

"We are the underdogs. The Gillard government is trying to shoot the messenger because it doesn’t want the truth revealed, including information about its own diplomatic and political dealings.

"Has there been any response from the Australian government to the numerous public threats of violence against me and other WikiLeaks personnel? One might have thought an Australian prime minister would be defending her citizens against such things, but there have only been wholly unsubstantiated claims of illegality. The Prime Minister and especially the Attorney-General are meant to carry out their duties with dignity and above the fray. Rest assured, these two mean to save their own skins. They will not."

And defending Wikileaks' disclosure of the classified documents, he wrote: "Democratic societies need a strong media and WikiLeaks is part of that media. The media helps keep government honest. WikiLeaks has revealed some hard truths about the Iraq and Afghan wars, and broken stories about corporate corruption."

To read the full article, click here.

European arrest warrant

Police contacted Assange’s lawyer, Mark Stephens, last night after receiving a fresh European Arrest Warrant from the Swedish authorities.

The first warrant, issued last month, was not valid as officials had failed to fill in the form properly.

Detectives in Sweden want to question Mr Assange after two women claimed they were sexually assaulted when he visited the country in August.

Under Swedish law, Mr Assange would receive at least two and up to six years if found guilty of rape.

Swedish news conference

The Chief Prosecutor in Sweden, based in Gothenburg, Marianne New told journalists at a new conference earlier that she had no new information regarding Mr Assange.

She said: "I only know that he has been arrested.

"I can only say that the matter was handled by the British authorities."

Asked whether Assange's arrest could be part of a coup to shut WikiLeaks, she replied: "I have been asked about it all the time, but I have not seen any signs that it would be so."

She also denied that other authorities had tried to get an insight into the investigation: "It is only journalists and individuals who made their views known."

She said: "I have not issued a European arrest warrant on him with the aim of extraditing him to the US."

‘False information’

Meanwhile, PostFinance, the financial arm of the Swiss post office, said it had closed Mr Assange’s account after he provided “false information”.

The bank said he falsely claimed to live in Geneva and people who do not live in Switzerland cannot hold accounts. WikiLeaks used the account for donations.

The sex case is Mr Assange’s most pressing legal issue, but may not be his last as several countries chew over the impact of his diplomatic cable disclosures.

He has come under growing pressure after his WikiLeaks site started publishing excerpts from a cache of 250,000 secret messages.

WikiLeaks was forced to move to a Swiss host after being dumped by US internet companies as it comes under siege from a series of cyber attacks.

Meanwhile, all Government departments in the UK have been asked by national security adviser Sir Peter Ricketts to review their computer security.

WikiLeaks appears to have no financial options left after PayPal, Mastercard and Visa all severed their links with the website.

Letter to Gillard

Almost 200 public figures last week wrote an open letter to Australian PM Gillard, urging her to protect Mr Assange.

Philosopher Noam Chomsky, actors and former politicians called on Ms Gillard to ensure Mr Assange’s safety.

Their concerns were raised following comments made by several senior US politicians, in which they called for Mr Assange’s execution over the leaking of confidential documents.

Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin described him as “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands” and called for him to be hunted down like a Taliban leader, while another senior Republican Mike Huckabee has said that “anything less than execution is too kind a penalty” for what he has done.

The letter read: “We therefore call upon you to condemn, on behalf of the Australian Government, calls for physical harm to be inflicted upon Mr Assange and to state publicly that you will ensure Mr Assange receives the rights and protections to which he is entitled, irrespective of whether the unlawful threats against him come from individuals or states.

“We urge you to confirm publicly Australia’s commitment to freedom of political communication; to refrain from cancelling Mr Assange’s passport, in the absence of clear proof that such a step is warranted; to provide assistance and advocacy to Mr Assange; and do everything in your power to ensure that any legal proceedings taken against him comply fully with the principles of law and procedural fairness.

“A statement by you to this effect should not be controversial – it is a simple commitment to democratic principles and the rule of law.”

Ms Gillard has been accused by Mr Assange’s lawyers of prejudicing any case against him by claiming he is “guilty of illegality” for leaking the documents.