WikiLeaks chief Assange fearful of US charges

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WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange admitted he feared US attempts to extradite him on spying charges, as he spent his first day on bail Friday at a mansion deep in the English countryside.

London's High Court ruled Thursday that the 39-year-old Australian could stay out of jail while he fights extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over allegations that he sexually assaulted two women.

Speaking after being freed, Assange condemned the "smear campaign" against him but said his biggest fear was that Washington would try to extradite him over the release by WikiLeaks of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables.

"I do not have too many fears about being extradited to Sweden. There are much bigger concerns about being extradited to the United States," the former computer hacker told reporters in London.

Later, on a supporter's country estate in eastern England where he must live while on bail, he said his lawyers had received unconfirmed reports that "there may be a US indictment for espionage for me, coming from a secure US grand jury investigation".

He added: "One of the concerns that we have had since I have been in the UK is whether the extradition proceeding to Sweden, which is occurring in a very strange and unusual way, is actually an attempt to get me into a jurisdiction which will then make it easier to extradite me to the United States."

Legal experts warned at a congressional hearing in Washington Thursday that the US statute dealing with espionage is so outdated that prosecutors would have trouble using it against the Australian.

However, the New York Times reported they were trying to build a case that Assange played a role in encouraging Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of leaking the cables to WikiLeaks, to steal the data from a government computer.

Assange was freed after the High Court in London rejected an attempt by British lawyers acting for Sweden to keep him in jail while he fights the extradition attempt, a process that could take months.

Judge Duncan Ouseley rejected the argument that Assange was a flight risk, but his supporters had to come up with a 240,000-pound (283,000-euro, 374,000-dollar) surety.

Under other conditions, he must live at Ellingham Hall, owned by former army officer Vaughan Smith. It sits on a 600-acre (240-hectare) estate near the rural town of Bungay in Suffolk, eastern England.

Smith, who founded the Frontline Club in London which acts as WikiLeaks' British base, has described Assange as "courageous".

Assange has also been electronically tagged, is subject to a curfew and must report to police daily.

His release was the result of a nine-day battle by his lawyers to have him freed following his arrest in London on a Swedish warrant on December 7.

Although a judge in a lower court granted him bail Tuesday, prosecuting lawyers appealed. It was only after this appeal was rejected in the High Court Thursday that Assange could be freed.

Speaking to jubilant supporters on the steps of the courthouse afterwards, Assange said: "I hope to continue my work and continue to protest my innocence in this matter."

Later, he said the allegations against him were a "very successful smear campaign and a very wrong one".

WikiLeaks has caused embarrassment and anger in Washington by revealing the cables in cooperation with selected newspapers and media around the world, and Assange's supporters have linked his detention to the massive leak.

Swedish prosecutors have denied the case has anything to do with WikiLeaks.

The latest US cables released by WikiLeaks on Friday showed the International Committee of the Red Cross provided US diplomats in 2005 with evidence of the systematic use of torture by Indian security forces in Kashmir.

© 2010 AFP

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