Judge denies WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange bail
LONDON (AP) – A British judge denied Julian Assange bail on Tuesday after the WikiLeaks founder told a London court he would fight efforts to extradite him to Sweden to face a sex-crimes investigation.
The secret-spilling websites’ finances came under increasing pressure as both Visa and Mastercard cut off funding methods, but a WikiLeaks spokesman insisted details from classified U.S. diplomatic cables would keep flowing – regardless of what happened to the group’s founder.
“This will not change our operation,” Kristinn Hrafnsson told The Associated Press. As if to underline the point, WikiLeaks released a cache of a dozen new diplomatic cables, its first publication in more than 24 hours.
Assange appeared Tuesday afternoon at the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London after turning himself in to Scotland Yard earlier in the day. He showed no reaction as Judge Howard Riddle denied him bail and sent him into U.K. custody.
Assange and his lawyers claim the Swedish accusations from two women stem from a “dispute over consensual but unprotected sex” dating back to August, and have claimed the case has taken on political overtones. Swedish officials have rejected those claims.
Assange faces rape and sexual molestation allegations in one case and sexual molestation and unlawful coercion in the other. He denies the allegations.
Riddle asked the 39-year-old Australian whether he understood that he could consent to be extradited to Sweden. Assange, dressed in a navy blue suit, cleared his throat and said: “I understand that and I do not consent.”
The decision to fight the extradition could be difficult. Extradition experts say that European arrest warrants like the one issued by Sweden can be tough to beat, barring mental or physical incapacity. Even if the warrant was defeated on a technicality, Sweden could simply issue a new one.
Assange’s website, meanwhile, came under increasing financial pressure Tuesday – with both Visa and MasterCard saying they would block payments to the controversial website.
In a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press, Visa Inc. said it was taking steps “to suspend Visa payment acceptance on WikiLeaks’ website pending further investigation into the nature of its business and whether it contravenes Visa operating rules.”
MasterCard sent a similar statement, saying it would suspend payments “until the situation is resolved.”
The move chokes off two important funding avenues for WikiLeaks, a loosely knit group of activists who rely on individual donations to fund their operations.
PayPal Inc., a popular online payment service, has already cut its links to the website, while Swiss authorities closed Assange’s new Swiss bank account on Monday, freezing tens of thousands of euros, according to his lawyers.
WikiLeaks is still soliciting donations through bank transfers to affiliates in Iceland and Germany, as well as by mail to an address at University of Melbourne in Australia.
Swedish lawyer Bjorn Hurtig said it was difficult to say how long the extradition process in Britain would take – anywhere from a week to two months. He said if Assange was extradited to Sweden, he wouldn’t be kept in detention after he’s been questioned, “because it’s been for the sake of the questioning that he’s been detained.”
Beginning in July, WikiLeaks angered the U.S. government by releasing tens of thousands of secret U.S. military documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That was followed last week by the ongoing release of what WikiLeaks says will eventually be a quarter-million cables from U.S. diplomatic posts around the world. The group provided those documents to five major newspapers, which have been working with WikiLeaks to edit the cables for publication.
The U.S. government launched a criminal investigation, saying the group has jeopardized U.S. national security and diplomatic efforts around the world.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, visiting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, was pleased by news of Assange’s arrest.
“That sounds like good news to me,” he said Tuesday.
Yet WikiLeaks has also seen an online army of supporters come to its aid, sending donations, fighting off computer attacks and setting up over 500 mirror sites around the world to make sure that the secret documents are published regardless of what happens to Assange.
Hrafnsson also said the group had no plans at the moment to release the key to a heavily encrypted version of some of its most important documents – an “insurance” file that has been distributed to supporters in case of an emergency.
Hrafnsson said that will only come into play if “grave matters” involving WikiLeaks staff occur – but did not elaborate on what those would be.