WikiLeaks Founder Assange To Go Free
Originally published on Thu December 16, 2010 6:33 am
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange walked out of a British prison Thursday after a judge rejected an appeal that would have kept him behind bars while he awaits an extradition hearing. The former hacker is wanted in Sweden for questioning in a sex-crimes investigation.
Assange thanked his supporters outside a courtroom in London.
"If justice is not always an outcome, at least it is not dead yet," he said to cheers. "I hope to continue my work and continue to protest my innocence in this matter and to reveal as we get it, which we have not yet, the evidence from these allegations."
Amid a barrage of flashbulbs, he added: "It's great to smell the fresh air of London again."
Assange was released hours after a hearing over whether he should be granted bail. It was his third court appearance since he surrendered to Scotland Yard on Dec. 7 and was locked up in London's Wandsworth prison.
Scores of reporters had filled the wood-paneled courtroom and public gallery of the British High Court, along with teams of lawyers, Assange's supporters and his mother, Christine Assange.
The 39-year-old Australian, wearing a dark gray suit, stood in the courtroom dock as Judge Duncan Ouseley heard the appeal to rescind his conditional release on about $316,000 bail. Prosecutors wanted to keep Assange behind bars until a scheduled hearing in January over his possible extradition to Sweden, which he has vowed to fight. It was initially believed that Swedish prosecutors ordered the appeal, but they now say it wasn't them.
During the hearing, prosecutors argued that Assange was a flight risk, but Ouseley said the defendant "clearly does have some desire to clear his name, because if he were not to do so, the allegations would always be hanging over him."
Assange gave a thumbs-up sign to the packed courtroom as he was led from the dock by guards and later thanked those who backed his bail petition. Cheers erupted from supporters outside the court upon hearing news of the ruling.
Assange lawyer Mark Stephens said he was "utterly delighted" with the decision, which included an order that prosecutors pay his client's court costs.
On Tuesday, Assange was granted bail on condition that he wear an electronic-monitoring tag, report to police every evening and observe two four-hour curfews each day. He also must stay at a registered address -- a 10-bedroom mansion in eastern England owned by Vaughan Smith, founder of London's Frontline Club for journalists.
Assange's bond was posted with money from celebrities such as socialite Jemima Khan and filmmakers Ken Loach and Michael Moore.
"They've all come forward and very generously arranged their financial affairs to support him," Stephens said.
Assange and his legal team now have less than a month to prepare their case opposing extradition to Sweden. Swedish authorities are investigating allegations of rape, molestation and unlawful coercion made by two women in connection with separate incidents in August. 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.
His supporters suspect the allegations are politically motivated, stemming from WikiLeaks' recent release of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables as well as having published secret U.S. military documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Building A Case In Washington
Meanwhile, federal investigators in Virginia are exploring a wide range of legal options to try to build a criminal case against Assange. The Justice Department is treading carefully, however, because prosecutors don't want to move too soon or to use a legal theory that sets a bad precedent for mainstream media organizations.
Former Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein told the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday that the stakes couldn't be higher.
"If WikiLeaks and Assange end up facing no charges for their mass document releases, which are about as audacious as I've ever heard of, they will conclude that they're legally invulnerable," he said. "They'll redouble their efforts to match or exceed their recent exploits, and copycat operations will sprout up around the Internet."
U.S. lawmakers from both political parties are offering to rewrite a 100-year-old espionage law to make it easier to prosecute Assange. Others are urging the FBI to concentrate on whether Assange encouraged the young Army private suspected of leaking secret diplomatic cables. They suggest that if he provided technical help or money, he could be charged with conspiracy or aiding the government leaker.
But Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University, told lawmakers that might be problematic.
"The espionage act has not previously been used to my knowledge," he said, "to prosecute someone on an inchoate theory of liability as an aider-abetter or co-conspirator, etc."
Prominent Washington attorney Abbe Lowell said reporters are constantly trying to wheedle information out of government sources.
"Press people cajole, encourage, flatter, talk to people in the government all the time," he said. "They are actively engaged in trying to find out that which the government does not want to disclose."
With reporting from Larry Miller, NPR's Philip Reeves in London and NPR's Carrie Johnson in Washington, D.C. This report contains material from The Associated Press.