WikiLeaks founder granted bail at London court hearing


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was granted bail Tuesday after a hearing at Westminster Magistrate’s Court in London.

The 39-year-old Australian handed himself over to London police last week to answer a European arrest warrant over alleged sex crimes in Sweden.

Assange is facing accusations of rape, sexual molestation and illegal use of force in separate incidents in August in Stockholm. He could be sentenced to two years in prison if convicted. His lawyers deny the allegations and have vowed to fight any attempts at extradition.

The magistrate agreed to grant bail Tuesday after Assange’s team of attorneys reported that Vaughan Smith, a former British army officer who founded London’s Frontline Club, had offered his mansion in Suffolk to Assange.

Smith will keep Assange “if not under house arrest, at least under mansion arrest,” said defense attorney Geoffrey Robinson. At that, Assange, dressed in a white shirt and a blue jacket and sitting in a glassed-in corner of the court with three security guards, smiled wryly.

The magistrate set bail at 200,000 pounds (about $315,000) plus two sureties of 20,000 pounds each (about $31,500). Assange’s passport must remain with police, and he will be monitored by a location tag.

Assange must be at Smith’s mansion, about two hours outside of London, for at least four hours overnight and four hours during the day. He will be required to report to police daily between 6 and 8 p.m. The next court hearing was scheduled for January 11.

After the conditions were set, Assange stood and said, “I understand,” with a neutral expression.

Outside the court, about 100 people demonstrated in support of Assange, holding signs saying “Julian Assange is a political prisoner” and “Why are you shooting the messenger? This is not 1984.”

During the hearing, Assange’s team of attorneys argued that since he is only wanted for questioning and has not been formally charged, he is presumed innocent. The magistrate agreed.

But, said Gemma Lindfield, the attorney representing the Swedish prosecution, “The court has already found that Mr. Assange is a flight risk. Nothing has changed in this regard.”

She said if the alleged offenses had occurred in Britain, “it undoubtedly would have been a charge of rape in this jurisdiction.”

Those in attendance at the hearing included Fatima Bhutto, niece of the late Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto and current Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, and prominent left-wing journalist John Pilger.

The judge denied Assange’s first request for bail at a hearing on December 7 on the grounds that there was a risk he would fail to surrender.

WikiLeaks’ release of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic and military documents is also under criminal review in the United States.

Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he had authorized “significant” actions related to a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks’ publication of the materials but has declined to elaborate.

An attorney for the WikiLeaks founder, citing Swedish authorities, has said a secret grand jury is meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, to consider charges related to the release of the documents.

WikiLeaks inflamed U.S. authorities last month by publishing the first of a large group of confidential U.S. diplomatic cables.

Only a small fraction of the 250,000 U.S. State Department documents have been released and more are being published daily.

U.S. authorities and other Western leaders say the documents’ publication threatens lives and national security.

WikiLeaks and its supporters say that the public has a right to know what is going on behind diplomatic doors.

Assange has been in custody since handing himself over to police last week.

On Tuesday, Australian broadcaster and CNN affiliate, Seven News, said it had received his first correspondence since being imprisoned.

The network said Assange’s mother, Christine, who is in London after traveling from Australia to be near her son, handed it a note in response to her question as to whether it had been worth it.

The statement from her son said: “My convictions are unfaltering. I remain true to the ideals I have expressed. This circumstance shall not shake them. If anything this process has increased my determination that they are true and correct.”

Christine Assange told Seven News she supported her son and appealed for others to do the same. “As a mother, I’m asking the world to stand up for my brave son,” she said.

On his last appearance in court, several celebrities joined protesters with offers to post bail.

In an email entitled “Hands Off WikiLeaks,” human rights activist Peter Tatchell urged readers to join him outside the court to defend the website and its founder.

“The WikiLeaks revelations regarding secret U.S. diplomatic cables have exposed the two-faced, dirty diplomacy of the U.S. government and its support for unsavoury regimes and human rights abusers,” Tatchell wrote.

He added: “Although the charges against Assange look like a fix to silence and discredit him, there may be truth in them. It is impossible to be sure either way. However, what is beyond question is that some top people in the U.S. are out for revenge. They want to destroy Assange and WikiLeaks.”