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Thursday, December 16, 2010

WikiLeaks Founder Ordered Freed as Court Rejects Appeal - NYTimes.com

Julian Assange, WikileaksImage by New Media Days via FlickrWikiLeaks Founder Ordered Freed as Court Rejects Appeal - NYTimes.com

LONDON — A London court ordered on Thursday that Julian Assange, the founder of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks be released on bail while he fights extradition to Sweden on alleged sex offenses.

The High Court decision reversed a ruling two days ago to deny bail. The terms Thursday included strict conditions on where he may live until another hearing on Jan. 11.

The hearing was formally separate from Mr. Assange’s role in the publication of some 250,000 American diplomatic documents and came as federal prosecutors in Washington looked for evidence that would enable them to charge him with helping with an Army intelligence analyst suspected of leaking the information.

The American prosecutors believe that if he did so, they could charge him as a conspirator rather than a passive recipient of the documents.

Mr. Assange’s court appearance in London, however, is related to allegations of sexual misconduct on three occasions with two young Swedish women in Stockholm last August, something he denies. Swedish prosecutors say they want him to be returned to their country to question him in connection with accusations that he broke Swedish rape and other laws.

Mr. Assange has said the encounters were consensual but his accusers say they ceased to be consensual when a condom was not being used.

Wearing an open white shirt and a dark suit, Mr. Assange appeared in an ornate dock in Courtroom 4 of the High Court on Thursday with several well-known press-freedom advocates, including the Australian journalist John Pilger, in the public areas.

The struggle in Britain’s courts began last week when Mr. Assange surrendered to the police and was at first denied bail as a flight risk. On Tuesday, Judge Howard Riddle ordered him freed on $315,000 bail, but he remained in custody as prosecutors appealed the decision.

Reporters at the High Court said that Mr. Assange’s representatives were obliged to deposit that amount in cash to allow him to go free if the appeal against his bail is overturned.

Unlike at the earlier hearing, reporters at the High Court said the judge hearing the appeal had ruled against their sending electronic messages via Twitter from the courtroom.

The Guardian newspaper reported on Wednesday that the appeal was initiated by British prosecutors, not their Swedish counterparts, who said they had “not got a view at all on bail.”

The case has become bitterly divisive among supporters and critics of Mr. Assange — and the focus of much attention by media outlets around the world. Scores of reporters, photographers and camera crews gathered outside the High Court as Mr. Assange arrived in a white armored prison services truck. The bail hearing started at around 6:30 a.m. Eastern time.

“The arguments are going to be the same arguments” as at Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. Assange’s British lawyer, Mark Stephens, told reporters on Thursday outside the High Court, close to London’s theater district. Mr. Stephens complained that his client was “being held on a punishment regime.”

Bail was granted on Tuesday after a friend of Mr. Assange’s offered to allow him to stay at a lavish country mansion in Suffolk, in eastern England, an hour from London. According to the bail conditions, Mr. Assange must spend every night at the mansion, Ellingham Hall, a 10-bedroom Georgian home on a 650-acre estate owned by Vaughan Smith, the wealthy founder of the Frontline journalists’ club in London.

According to Britain’s Press Association news agency, Mr. Smith told reporters outside the court: “It would be terrible if he doesn’t get bail. He needs an appropriate address. He needs a safe place. I think we all need to stand up and say where we stand on this.”

Geoffrey Robertson, one of Britain’s most prominent lawyers, who is assisting Mr. Assange’s defense team, described it in court as less house arrest, more “mansion arrest.” But Mr. Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, will also be electronically tagged to track his movements and must agree to curfews — from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Additionally, he will be stripped of his passport and will be required to present himself to the police every evening.

His incarceration has not ended the flow of classified American diplomatic cables, mostly between American diplomats abroad and the State Department in Washington. Earlier, WikiLeaks published confidential American material relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The documents were made available to newspapers including The New York Times.

Ravi Somaiya reported from London, and Alan Cowell from Paris.

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