Judge: Assange does have desire to clear his name

WikiLeaks founder is released to English country manor after nine days in jail for alleged sex crimes

Published December 16, 2010 6:04PM (EST)

Julian Assange will be heading to a British country mansion after a U.K. judge rejected attempts to keep the WikiLeaks founder in prison as he fights extradition to Sweden on sex-crimes allegations.

Cheers erupted Thursday from supporters outside the neo-Gothic London court at the verdict by High Court Justice Duncan Ouseley.

Assange's lawyer, Mark Stephens, said he was "utterly delighted" with the ruling, which included an order that prosecutors pay his client's court costs.

Assange has been in a U.K. prison since Dec. 7, following his surrender to British police over a Swedish warrant relating to the sex-crimes inquiry. He denies any wrongdoing but is refusing Sweden's request to extradite him for questioning.

Prosecutors had argued there was a risk the 39-year-old Australian would abscond if he was freed. But Ouseley said if Assange fled "he would diminish himself in the eyes of many of his supporters" -- and make famous backers like filmmaker Michael Moore look foolish.

"I don't accept that Mr. Assange has an incentive not to attend (court)," Ouseley said. "He clearly does have some desire to clear his name."

Assange, dressed in a dark gray suit, smiled and gave a thumb's up sign to a packed courtroom as he was led from the dock by guards. But Assange may still spend another night in jail as supporters scramble to fill out the paperwork.

His lawyers need to produce the 200,000 pounds ($316,000) bail pledged by several wealthy supporters, and produce signatures from several guarantors. WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told The Associated Press there was only a "slim chance" the formalities could be completed before Friday.

Some journalists in the packed courtroom were disappointed Thursday when the judge said they would not be allowed to tweet during the hearing. Two days ago, another U.K. judge broke legal ground by allowing them to give live updates of Assange's bail hearing using the microblogging site Twitter.

Assange was granted conditional bail Tuesday, but prosecutors appealed.

According to the bail conditions set by Ouseley, Assange must wear an electronic tag, report to police every day and observe a curfew. He also must stay at a registered address -- a 10-bedroom mansion in eastern England owned by Vaughan Smith, a WikiLeaks supporter and founder of London's Frontline Club for journalists.

Two women have accused Assange of sexual misconduct -- including rape, molestation and unlawful coercion -- for separate incidents in August in Sweden. He has not been charged.

Assange's lawyers say the allegations stem from a dispute over "consensual but unprotected sex" and argue that he has offered to make himself available for questioning via video link or in person in Britain.

Lawyer Gemma Lindfield, acting for Sweden, said the allegations had enhanced Assange's reputation among his supporters, who "view it as part of the wider conspiracy." She said given Assange's nomadic lifestyle and loose ties to some of those promising bond, there was "a real risk" he would flee.

But the judge said when Assange arrived in Britain, he had asked his lawyers to contact police so they would know where he was.

"That is not the conduct of a person who is seeking to evade justice," Ouseley said.

Swedish Prosecutor Marianne Ny said the bail decision would not change the ongoing investigation in Sweden, and the extradition case would be handled by British authorities.

Assange's next extradition hearing is set for Jan. 11.

Sweden says the claims against Assange have nothing to do with WikiLeaks' secret-spilling, but his supporters suspect the claims are politically motivated.

WikiLeaks has deeply angered U.S. officials and made headlines around the world by beginning to publish a trove of 250,000 secret U.S. diplomatic cables. The move last month came after the group last summer leaked secret U.S. military documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that U.S. officials said put the lives of informers at risk.

Officials in Washington claim some other countries have already curtailed their dealings with the U.S. government as a result of the cable leaks.

The latest batch of secret U.S. cables included revelations that Chevron Corp. expressed interest in developing oil reserves straddling the Iran-Iraq border -- at potential risk of violating U.S. sanctions against Tehran. They also described a gas leak on a BP PLC platform in Azerbaijan two years ago that had similarities to this summer's Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Also Thursday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva denied one of the most embarrassing claims, saying neither she nor her staff had ever spied on U.N. officials as suggested in one of the cables.

"I just want to assure everybody we're not collecting data on U.N. officials," U.S. Ambassador Betty E. King told reporters in Geneva.

WikiLeaks says on its website the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables "show the extent of US spying on its allies and the UN" and how American officials turn "a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse" in allied nations.

The U.S. government says the cables depict the normal workings of diplomacy.


Associated Press Writers Jill Lawless in London, Frank Jordans in Geneva and Malin Rising in Stockholm contributed to this report.

By Cassandra Vinograd

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