Assange held in London jail ahead of long legal fight

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen as he leaves a police station in London, Britain on 11 April 2019. Reuters File Photo
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen as he leaves a police station in London, Britain on 11 April 2019. Reuters File Photo

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange languished Friday in a British jail at the outset of a likely lengthy extradition battle following the dramatic end to his seven-year stay in Ecuador’s London embassy.

Within hours of police hauling him out of the embassy on Thursday, the 47-year-old Australian appeared in court for breaching his British bail conditions in 2012 and to face a subsequent US extradition request.

A legal source familiar with the case told AFP that Assange was being held at Belmarsh prison in southeast London.

One of eight “high security” jails in England, it can also hold prisoners “requiring specific management arrangements because of their public and media profile”, according to a 2018 inspection report.

Assange was remanded in custody Thursday at a hearing in front of a London judge, who pronounced him guilty of disobeying his bail terms by fleeing to the embassy in June 2012.

He could receive up to a year in prison when sentenced at an as yet undetermined later date.

His separate extradition case on charges of computer hacking is set to be next heard by video-link at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 2 May.

However, under British law the United States has until 12 June to submit full extradition papers.

Assange’s London lawyer Jennifer Robinson confirmed he would contest the long-feared attempt to try him there.

“He’s obviously going to fight extradition and fight it hard,” Robinson told BBC radio on Friday, adding she had visited her client in a court cell after the hearing when he thanked supporters and said: “I told you so.”

“The bigger question is... why is the United States seeking his extradition over publishing truthful information.”

Extradition ‘should be opposed’

Assange sought asylum at Ecuador’s embassy in London’s chic Knightsbridge district after a British judge ruled he should be extradited to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations.

Inside the red-brick building he lived a sparse existence in a flat measuring 18 square metres (190 square feet) with just a bed, shower, computer, treadmill and microwave.

Britain spent £13.2 million up to 2015 on policing up to 2015, maintaining a 24-hour guard at the embassy’s doors in the first year.

Relations with his Ecuadoran hosts gradually soured and new pro-US president Lenin Moreno on Thursday pulled his asylum and permitted British police to remove Assange.

Prime minister Theresa May welcomed the arrest as showing “no one is above the law”.

But opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a leftist stalwart, called for the government to block the extradition.

“The extradition of Julian Assange to the US for exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan should be opposed,” he said on Twitter.

May’s comments prompted a furious reaction on Twitter from Assange’s mother, who lives in Australia.

She accused the British prime minister of “trying to divert attention away from her Brexit dog’s breakfast by cheering on the thuggish, brutal, unlawful arrest of my courageous, tortured multi-award winning journalist son”.

Years-long extradition cases

Legal experts said the case could be stuck in British courts for up to two years and, if appealed, potentially go all the way to the European Court of Justice.

“The chances of him winning (against) extradition are low,” Ben Keith, a British barrister specialising in the field, told AFP. “We extradite most people to the US.”

Critics of the move, including WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson, have warned the US could add more charges once Assange is extradited.

But Keith said once they have filed their formal request within the next 65 days, American officials would be limited to those charges.

“There’s specific international extradition law protection that prevents you from charging someone with additional (offences),” he added.

Assange supporters, including fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, rallied outside Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Thursday.

Inside the courtrooom, judge Michael Snow described him as a “narcissist” and suggested he could consent to the extradition to “get on with your life”.

Previous comparable cases, involving accused hackers Lauri Love and Gary McKinnon, took between five and 10 years but eventually resulted in their extraditions to the US being blocked.