WikiLeaks' Assange in London court to hear bail outcome

16th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange hears Thursday if he is to be freed on bail after more than a week in prison following his arrest on a Swedish warrant for questioning about alleged sex crimes.

The 39-year-old Australian attended the hearing at London's High Court after being driven through the city from Wandsworth prison, where he has been held in solitary confinement virtually since his arrest on December 7.

He was granted bail on Tuesday, subject to electronic tagging, a curfew and a 240,000-pound (283,000-euro, 374,000-dollar) surety, but British lawyers acting for Sweden appealed the decision.

Thursday's appeal hearing began at 1130 GMT and was expected to take several hours. Assange's mother, Christine, and supporters including campaigning journalist John Pilger were in the packed courtroom.

Sweden wants Britain to extradite Assange for questioning over claims of rape and sexual molestation against two women in Stockholm in August, which he denies and which his lawyers argue are politically motivated.

They cite the timing of his arrest, which coincided with the release by the whistle-blowing website of thousands of confidential US diplomatic cables, causing huge embarrassment and anger in Washington.

If released on bail, Assange will have to live at the country estate of Vaughan Smith, a former British army officer who founded the Frontline Club, a media club in London where WikiLeaks has based part of its operations.

The subsequent extradition proceedings could take months.

Before he is freed, his supporters -- including maverick US film director Michael Moore, campaigning socialite Bianca Jagger and journalist John Pilger, who was in court -- must come up with 200,000 pounds of the bail money in cash.

One of Assange's lawyers, Mark Stephens, told journalists before the hearing: "We believe we will have the money today. It appears to be in the banking system."

He added of the bail appeal: "We are hopeful but of course it is a matter entirely for the judge."

The decision to challenge Assange's bail was taken by British prosecutors acting on behalf of the Swedish authorities, but they were forced to defend the move after the Swedes said they had not been consulted on the decision.

"The Crown Prosecution Service acts here as agents of the government seeking extradition, in this case the Swedish government," Britain's Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer told BBC radio.

Speaking as he arrived at court, Pilger said: "I hope he will be released -- he should be, he is an innocent man until proven otherwise.

"This is an extraordinary case. The amount of bail is ridiculous. Many people have questions to answer, among them the director of public prosecutions."

Thailand's royal family were the subject of the latest WikiLeaks revelations Thursday, as a leaked US diplomatic cable showed top palace officials expressed concern about the prospect of the crown prince becoming king.

Three influential Thai figures, including two senior advisers to revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, "had quite negative comments about Crown Prince (Maha) Vajiralongkorn," said the memo from the US embassy in Bangkok dated January 2010.

Another cable also revealed that an oil platform in Azerbaijan operated by BP suffered a well blowout and a huge gas leak around 18 months before the Gulf of Mexico spill.

The news came as the United States filed a lawsuit against the British energy giant and eight other companies for billions of dollars in damages over this year's devastating spill.

US President Barack Obama has led worldwide condemnation of WikiLeaks, dubbing their actions as "deplorable", and Washington is pursuing an investigation into how the website obtained the information.

But WikiLeaks and its founder have also won global support -- hackers have attacked credit card and payment firms who restricted funds to the website, and more than 660,000 people have signed an online petition of support.

A group of left-leaning German newspapers also published a joint appeal Thursday against what they called the persecution of WikiLeaks by governments and corporations.

© 2010 AFP

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