Tuesday, December 7, 2010

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrested on Swedish warrant, denied bail

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 10:42 AM

LONDON - Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks Web site whose release of sensitive U.S. documents on the Internet has generated outrage and embarrassment in official circles, was denied bail Tuesday after he was arrested by British police on a Swedish warrant for alleged sex crimes.

During an afternoon court appearance, British Judge Howard Riddle told Assange there were "substantial grounds" to believe that he would not show up for further proceedings. The judge ordered Assange held pending an extradition hearing.

When Assange was asked whether he understood that he could consent to extradition to Sweden, he told Riddle, "I understand that, and I do not consent."

Assange, accompanied by his lawyer, arrived at the City of Westminster Magistrates' Court in central London on Tuesday afternoon after turning himself in to Scotland Yard at 9:30 a.m. local time. A scrum of reporters, mixed with supporters holding placards, jammed the street outside. Assange's lawyers requested that he be freed on bail pending the result of the extradition proceedings, which could potentially take weeks.

Assange has said he intends to fight extradition to Sweden, where he is being sought for questioning related to allegations of sexual assault against two women. Assange and his supporters have denied the accusations, calling them part of an elaborate plot to silence WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks officials, in a Twitter message, said the arrest would not hinder further dissemination of sensitive documents.

"Today's actions against our editor-in-chief Julian Assange won't affect our operations: we will release more cables tonight as normal," the message said.

Since publication of the latest round of documents began last week, pressure has mounted on Assange, who was being sought internationally on an Interpol warrant, and on WikiLeaks itself, which is in a global battle to keep its financial and distribution system intact.

Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, had been in hiding for weeks. In a video statement to the BBC, Assange's attorney, Mark Stephens, said Scotland Yard notified him late Monday that a valid Swedish arrest warrant had been delivered to British authorities and that Stockholm was seeking his extradition. Under European law, extradition between two European Union members - such as Britain and Sweden - is a faster, less legally complicated process, making any bid to overturn the extradition request difficult.

Stephens told the BBC, "It's about time we got to the end of the day and we got some truth, justice and rule of law. Julian Assange has been the one in hot pursuit to vindicate himself to clear his good name."

His arrest comes as U.S. officials continue to investigate whether Assange can be charged in the United States for crimes related to the WikiLeaks release of sensitive documents. U.S. officials expressed outrage Monday after WikiLeaks released a State Department cable that listed sites worldwide whose "loss" could "critically impact" the health, communications, economy or security of the United States. In addition to listing dams, bridges and mines, the cable identified specific factories that are key producers of vaccines and weapons parts.

The release of the list "is really irresponsible. It is tantamount to giving a group like al-Qaeda a targeting list," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

In a warning to Swedish and U.S. authorities, however, Stephens said this weekend that his client was prepared to retaliate if charged. He said Assange might release the secret code - with a 256-bit encryption key - of a massive file quietly distributed this summer that contains thousands of unredacted documents.

The allegations against Assange in Sweden stem from a trip he took there in August, during which he had brief relationships with two women, engaging in what he has since described as consensual sex.

Both women, according to Swedish authorities, have conceded that sex with Assange started as consensual but allege that it later became nonconsensual. If convicted on the most serious charges against him, Assange faces up to four years in prison.

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