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A British court today granted bail with strict conditions to Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks website, who faces allegations of rape in Sweden. Assange’s lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, asked the city of Westminster magistrates court in London for bail on the following conditions: £200,000 in security, surety from two people, a curfew, daily reporting to police and surrender of his passport. The judge granted the conditions, and gave lawyers representing Sweden two hours to lodge an appeal. Even if an appeal is not lodged, it is likely that Assange will remain in custody tonight anyway. A full extradition hearing is scheduled for January 11.
“We doubt whether this actual category of rape would be rape under English law,” said Robertson, a former appeals judge at the UN special court for Sierra Leone, and whose former clients include author Salman Rushdie.
Appearing for the Swedish authorities, Gemma Lindfield, argued that Assange should not be given bail as the charges were serious and there was a real possibility of Assange taking flight. “This is not a case about WikiLeaks, rather a case about alleged serious offenses against two women,” she said. Unlike Robertson, she said the allegations were serious and Assange had only weak ties to Britain and “the means and ability to abscond”.
Assange entered court one at 2.12pm, looking more ashen than last week, wearing a dark jacket and open white shirt. With so much press interest, people were given permission to stand; in a break with tradition, journalists were allowed to tweet the proceedings.
Amid chaotic scenes, Robertson, who cut short a holiday in Australia to be in court, had to bang the door to get in.
A minor scuffle broke out as a man wearing a hat in Swedish national colours was pushed from the road by police. Dozens of police officers corralled a vocal and diverse protest behind metal fencing on the other side of the road.
A coterie of Assange’s celebrity supporters attended the hearing, including socialite Jemima Khan, Bianca Jagger and Fatima Bhutto, niece of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto. Outside, one protester held up a placard that read: “sex crimes, my arse!”, another bore a placard with “free Julian Assange”. But media outnumbered the protesters – who were about 30 strong.
Ahead of the hearing, Assange remained defiant, telling his mother from his cell that he was committed to publishing more secret US cables. “My convictions are unfaltering. I remain true to the ideals I have expressed. This circumstance shall not shake them,” Assange said, according to a written statement of his comments supplied to Australia’s Network Seven by his mother Christine.
“We now know that Visa, Mastercard, Paypal and others are instruments of US foreign policy. I am calling for the world to protect my work and my people from these illegal and immoral attacks.”
The 39-year-old Australian turned himself in to Scotland Yard detectives last week after being accused of sexually assaulting two women in Sweden. He has vowed to fight attempts to extradite him.
He was denied bail by district judge Howard Riddle at city of Westminster magistrates court last Tuesday, on the grounds that there was a risk he would fail to surrender. The decision to remand him in custody came despite despite the film director Ken Loach, the journalist John Pilger, Jemima Khan, and other suporters offering sureties for him totalling £180,000.
His legal team has claimed Swedish prosecutors were put under political pressure to restart their inquiry to help silence and discredit Assange, whose website has provoked US anger by publishing some of a trove of 250,000 classified US diplomatic papers.
Assange’s lawyer Mark Stephens visited him in Wandsworth prison yesterday afternoon, and said his client was being held under harsher conditions than last week. He claimed Assange was being confined to his cell for all but half an hour a day, and denied association with others prisoners, access to the library or TV.
Stephens also claimed a number of letters to Assange from media organisations have not reached him. He said Assange was under 24-hour video surveillance and had complained that a tooth which broke off while he was eating had later been stolen from his cell.
His case has stirred fresh controversy about European arrest warrants, which the Swedish authorities would use for his extradition.
Lady Ludford MEP, the Liberal Democrat European justice and human rights spokeswoman, claimed the European arrest warrant system, which she said she supported, was being used by Sweden to carry out a fishing expedition. Sweden had yet to formally charge Assange with any offence.
In a letter to the Guardian, Ludford wrote that past cases showed that it was “not a legitimate purpose for an EAW to be used to conduct an investigation to see whether that person should be prosecuted”.
She added: “I urge the UK courts to refuse to allow the Assange EAW to be a fishing expedition without a pending actual prosecution. EU rules should be properly respected so that the integrity of the European arrest warrant process is protected.”
The allegations about Assange were made by two women. The first complainant, known as Miss A, said she was the victim of “unlawful coercion” on the night of 14 August in 2009 in Stockholm. The court heard Assange was alleged to have “forcefully” held her arms and used his body weight to hold her down.
The second charge alleged he had “sexually molested” her by having sex without using a condom. A third charge claimed Assange “deliberately molested” Miss A on 18 August.
A fourth charge, relating to a woman called Miss W, alleges that on 17 August, Assange “improperly exploited” a situation where she was asleep, to have sex with her without using a condom.
This article originally appeared in Guardian.