Thursday, December 16, 2010

Julian Assange granted bail at high court

Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder,
is led into the high court in London this morning.
Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
WikiLeaks founder is wanted in Sweden for questioning over allegations of rape
Britain's high court today decided to grant bail to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who is wanted in Sweden for questioning over allegations of rape.

Justice Duncan Ouseley agreed with a decision by the City of Westminister earlier in the week to release Assange on strict conditions: £200,000 cash deposit, with a further £40,000 guaranteed in two sureties of £20,000 and strict conditions on his movement.

Assange stood in a dark grey suit in the courtroom dock as Ouseley began hearing an appeal by British prosecutors acting on behalf of Sweden.

There was an early sign that the day would go in Assange's favour when Ouseley said: "The history of the way it [the case] has been dealt with by the Swedish prosecutors would give Mr Assange some basis that he might be acquitted following a trial."

The 39-year-old Australian arrived at the high court in a white prison van. Photographers swarmed around the vehicle in an attempt to get a picture. Amid intense media interest, a queue of journalists had formed as early as 6am.

Mark Stephens, one of Assange's lawyers, said before the proceedings that the bail money had been raised from Assange's supporters and "appears to be in the banking system". Stephens again complained about the conditions in which Assange had been held, describing them as Victorian.

Assange has been held in solitary confinement, released from his cell for only one hour a day, and his mail has been heavily censored, according to his supporters.

Today's hearing followed a decision by senior district judge Howard Riddle to grant Assange bail, but he remained in Wandsworth prison, where he has been held for a week, as prosecutors gave notice they would appeal.

Assange is fighting attempts to extradite him to Sweden for questioning over allegations of sexual misconduct including rape made by two female WikiLeaks volunteers, which he denies.

"It's an ongoing investigation in Sweden and the prosecutor needs to interrogate him to make a decision on the matter," said Karin Rosander, a spokeswoman for the Swedish prosecution agency.

Bail conditions set by Riddle stipulate that Assange must stay at a country house in Suffolk owned by Vaughan Smith, the founder of the Frontline club in west London, report to police daily and wear an electronic tag.

Meanwhile, it emerged that the decision to have Assange sent to a London jail and kept there was taken by the British authorities and not by prosecutors in Sweden.

It had been widely supposed that Sweden had taken the decision to oppose bail, with the Crown Prosecution Service acting merely as its representative. But the Swedish prosecutor's office told the Guardian it had "not got a view at all on bail" and that Britain had made the decision to oppose bail.

Karin Rosander, director of communications for Sweden's prosecutor's office, said: "The decision was made by the British prosecutor. I got it confirmed by the CPS this morning that the decision to appeal the granting of bail was entirely a matter for the CPS. The Swedish prosecutors are not entitled to make decisions within Britain. It is entirely up to the British authorities to handle it."

As a result, she said, Sweden would not submit any new evidence or arguments to the high court hearing. "The Swedish authorities are not involved in these proceedings. We have not got a view at all on bail."

After the Swedish statement was put to the CPS, it confirmed that all decisions concerning the opposing of bail being granted to Assange had been taken by its lawyers. "In all extradition cases, decisions on bail issues are always taken by the domestic prosecuting authority," it said. "It would not be practical for prosecutors in a foreign jurisdiction … to make such decisions."

Assange and his lawyers have expressed fears of a looming legal battle in the US, where prosecutors may be preparing to indict him for espionage over WikiLeaks' publication of the documents.

The New York Times reported that federal prosecutors were looking for evidence that Assange had conspired with a former US army intelligence analyst suspected of leaking classified documents.

Among the material prosecutors are studying is an online chat log in which Private Bradley Manning is said to claim that while he was downloading government files he was directly communicating with Assange using an encrypted internet conferencing service, according to the Times. Manning is also said to have claimed that Assange gave him access to a dedicated server for uploading some of them to WikiLeaks.

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