LONDON – Julian Assange, the founder of the controversial WikiLeaks website, was arrested here Tuesday and ordered to remain in custody until a hearing next week on his possible extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over allegations that he sexually assaulted two women.
The jailing of Assange came as governments and businesses around the world continued their efforts to halt the ability of WikiLeaks to function. On Tuesday, a Visa Europe spokesman announced the firm was suspending its business with WikiLeaks, following in the footsteps of Amazon.com, MasterCard, online pay service PayPal and others.
Assange’s lawyer, Mark Stephens, called his client innocent of any sex charges and questioned whether the accusations are part of an effort by governments to silence him. “Many people believe Mr. Assange to be innocent, myself included,” he said. “Many people believe the prosecution to be politically motivated.”
Assange, 39, turned himself in to police Tuesday morning, hours after Britain received a formal warrant for his arrest from Swedish authorities. Assange denies any wrongdoing and says he will fight the attempt to extradite him, beginning with a hearing Dec. 14.
That could be the start of a legal battle that could drag on for weeks or even months, in part because the case against him in Sweden remains rather murky. Assange, who is Australian, is eager to avoid extradition for fear that it could set the stage for him to be sent to the U.S. if prosecutors there charge him with offenses relating to the WikiLeaks disclosures of State Department diplomatic cables and classified Pentagon files related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those leaked files have turned Assange into an international figure, vilified by the U.S. and governments around the world for spilling official secrets while lionized by activists demanding a free flow of information.
The ability of WikiLeaks to raise money and release information is being hemmed in as the businesses it relies on to operate terminate their relationships, saying the organization’s actions are in violation of customer agreements.
The sex accusations against Assange in Sweden have dogged him since the summer, before his organization began releasing portions of its huge trove of rifled State Department cables. The allegations stem from separate liaisons he had with two women in August, which Swedish prosecutors say may have involved molestation, “unlawful coercion” and rape.
Assange insists that the encounters were consensual.
Stephens asserts that Assange has been willing from the start to cooperate with Swedish authorities in their investigation, but that his offers to submit to some form of questioning, both in Sweden while he was still in the country and later in London, were repeatedly rebuffed.
“We are in the rather exotic position of not having seen any of the evidence (of the crimes) that Mr. Assange is accused of,” Stephens told reporters after Tuesday’s preliminary hearing.