December 7, 2010 in Nation/World

Judge denies WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange bail

Associated Press
 
Lennart Preiss photo

In this Oct. 23, 2010 file photo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks during a news conference in London. Assange surrendered to London police Tuesday Dec. 7, 2010, as part of a Swedish sex-crimes investigation, the latest blow to an organization that faces legal, financial and technological challenges after releasing hundreds of secret U.S. diplomatic cables.
(Full-size photo)

LONDON — A British judge sent Julian Assange to jail on Tuesday, denying bail to the WikiLeaks founder who vowed to fight efforts to extradite him to Sweden in a sex-crimes investigation.

A WikiLeaks spokesman said the flow of secret U.S. diplomatic cables would not be affected by Assange’s legal troubles, nor by the group’s increasingly rocky finances as both Visa and MasterCard cut off key funding methods.

“This will not change our operation,” Kristinn Hrafnsson told the Associated Press. As if to underline the point, WikiLeaks released a dozen new diplomatic cables, its first publication in more than 24 hours, including the details of a NATO defense plan for Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that prompted an indignant response from the Russian envoy to the alliance.

Assange turned himself in to Scotland Yard this morning, and was sent to the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court in the early afternoon. He showed no reaction as Judge Howard Riddle denied him bail and sent him to jail until his next extradition hearing on Dec. 14.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, visiting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, was pleased that Assange was behind bars.

“That sounds like good news to me,” he said today.

Assange faces rape and sexual molestation allegations in one Swedish case and sexual molestation and unlawful coercion in another. He denies the allegations, which he and his lawyers claim stem from a “dispute over consensual but unprotected sex” dating back to August.

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.”

Fighting the extradition request could be difficult. 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 were defeated on a technicality, Sweden could simply issue a new one.

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 is extradited to Sweden, he won’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.”

WikiLeaks, meanwhile, came under increasing financial pressure today as it became increasingly difficult to collect the individual donations that fund most of the operations of the loosely knit group of activists.

Visa Inc. said it would “suspend Visa payment acceptance on WikiLeaks’ website pending further investigation into the nature of its business and whether it contravenes Visa operating rules.” MasterCard said it would suspend payments “until the situation is resolved.”

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.

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. Last week, it began a rolling release of what WikiLeaks says are 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, and has been sharing subsets of the cache with other publications in recent days.

The U.S. government has launched a criminal investigation, saying the group has jeopardized U.S. national security and diplomatic efforts around the world.

As WikiLeaks has come under legal, financial and technological attack, an online army of supporters has 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 the organization.

Hrafnsson, the WikiLeaks spokesman, said the group had no plans yet to carry through on its threat to release the key to a heavily encrypted version of some of the most sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables — an “insurance” file that has been distributed to supporters and news media in case of an emergency.

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