WikiLeaks defiant as Assange held in British custody (Roundup)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

LONDON - The international furore over the latest batch of WikiLeaks publications threatened to intensify Tuesday as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was in custody in Britain on unrelated sex assault claims.

While US and British politicians have led the international condemnation of recent releases of top secret US cables by WikiLeaks, suggesting the organisation’s activities bordered on “criminality”, supporters hailed the websites’ activities as a defence of “free speech”.

“This is going to go viral. Many people believe that the allegations against Assange are politically motivated,” his lawyer, Mark Stephens, said. He was confident that Assange would, in time, be “released and vindicated”.

The lawyer’s comments came after a preliminary court hearing, following the arrest of Assange in London Tuesday, at which he was refused bail and ordered to remain in custody in connection with sexual assault allegations made in a European arrest warrant issued by Sweden.

Assange, 39, will have to appear for a full extradition hearing Dec 14, the judge at Westminster Magistrates Court ruled. He was refused bail on the grounds that there was a “risk he would fail to surrender”, a court spokesman said.

“This case is not, on the face of it, about WikiLeaks,” district judge Howard Riddle said. “It is an allegation in another European country of serious sexual offences,” he added.

In Sweden, public prosecutor Marianne Ny said the material relating to the alleged offences was “sufficiently strong” to back up the arrest warrant. She recalled that Sweden’s Supreme Court had last week rejected Assange’s appeal against the warrant.

Assange was detained early Tuesday after he presented himself “by agreement” at a London police station, Scotland Yard said.

“Officers from the Metropolitan Police Extradition Unit have this morning arrested Julian Assange on behalf of the Swedish authorities on suspicion of rape,” a police statement said.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, speaking to reporters accompanying him on a visit to Afghanistan, welcomed the arrest.

“I hadn’t heard that, but that sounds like good news to me,” he said, according to The New York Times.

US authorities have been investigating the publication of the WikiLeaks documents under laws that protect classified material. State Department spokesman PJ Crowley would not say whether the US government would seek Assange’s extradition.

“Our investigation is ongoing, and beyond that, as to his arrest, this is at this point an issue between Britain and Sweden,” he said.

Reports from the London court hearing said Assange, who denies the allegations made against him by two women, had vowed to contest the extradition to Sweden.

A number of prominent Britons, including film director Ken Loach and socialite Jemima Khan, the ex-wife of former Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan, had offered bail, reports said.

WikiLeaks condemned the arrest as “an attack on media freedom” and said the releases of top secret US diplomatic cables would continue regardless.

“Today’s actions against our editor-in-chief Julian Assange won’t affect our operations: we will release more cables tonight as normal,” said a tweet from the official WikiLeaks Twitter account, which resumed operations after a 19-hour break Tuesday.

The US has been particularly stung by the publication earlier this week of a long list of key facilities around the world considered “vital” for its national security, commentators said.

Assange, an Australian national, has been at the centre of an international outcry over the latest series of disclosures, and previous leaks of US Pentagon papers on the Iraq and Afghan conflicts.

His lawyers stressed that Assange had not been formally charged, and that he had not attempted to flee jurisdiction.

Stephens earlier described the arrest warrant against his client as a “political stunt” which could lead to his being handed over to the US authorities.

“Julian Assange has been the one in hot pursuit to vindicate himself to clear his good name,” he added.

Assange has also come in for severe criticism in his native Australia, where Prime Minister Julia Gillard has condemned his activities in the strongest terms.

In an article for Wednesday’s edition of The Australian newspaper, Assange accused Gillard of “disgraceful pandering” to the US.

“The Gillard government is trying to shoot the messenger because it doesn’t want the truth revealed, including information about its own diplomatic and political dealings,” he wrote.

Legal commentators in Britain warned that any possible attempts by the US to lay hands on Assange in connection with the extradition process to Sweden would only strengthen the case of his lawyers in fighting the extradition.

Meanwhile, British credit card operator Visa Tuesday followed other providers in suspending payments to WikiLeaks, saying that an inquiry was under way into how the organization operates.

The decision by Visa follows similar moves by other service providers, including MasterCard and PayPal, British media reports said.

WikiLeaks relies on online donations from a worldwide network of supporters to fund its work.

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