‘Fight starts tomorrow’: Assange jailed
JAILED Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is about to begin another legal fight, this time to prevent extradition to the US where he fears he will be persecuted.
Assange was sentenced yesterday to 50 weeks' jail for breaching his bail by gaining asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for seven years as he sought to evade sex charges in Sweden.
His sentencing hearing at Southwark Crown Court in London was told his terror of being sent to the US was what caused him to seek asylum and remain holed up for so long.
Jennifer Robinson, one of the lawyers on Assange's legal team, said outside court the real fight "begins tomorrow" (UK time).
"Today was the first time a British court has heard detailed evidence of the concerns and fears that led Mr Assange to seek asylum ... and the reason he made the decision to go inside the embassy," she said. "This case is and has always been about the risk of extradition to the United States - we've been saying since 2010 that risk was real, and we now have extradition request from the United States."
Ms Robinson said the focus of Assange's legal team was to prevent that from happening and "fighting that extradition request".
She added: "And that fight starts tomorrow."
Assange raised his fist defiantly as he was led from court while supporters erupted with anger from the public gallery and yelled "Shame on you!" to the judge.
'TERRIFYING': ASSANGE'S EXTRAORDINARY LETTER
The Australian apologised to the court through an extraordinary letter, in which he spoke of being terrified of being taken to the US and persecuted for publishing sensitive intelligence cables.
The 47-year-old was found guilty of breaching the Bail Act at a hearing at Westminster Magistrates' Court earlier this month after his sensational arrest by Met Police detectives.
Prosecutor Aaron Watkins told Judge Deborah Taylor this was "plainly a category A1 case" - where the most severe penalty was 12 months' jail - while Assange's defence lawyer argued it was a much lesser breach due to the fear he had of being sent to the US.
A letter from Assange was read to the court, in which he apologised for the first time for the trouble his actions had caused, but claimed he did it because he was "struggling with terrifying circumstances" and "did what I thought was best".
He wrote: "I found myself struggling with terrifying circumstances for which neither I nor those from whom I sought advice could work out any remedy. I did what I thought at the time was the best and perhaps the only thing that could be done - which I hoped might lead to a legal resolution being reached between Ecuador and Sweden that would protect me from the worst of my fears."
'SAD, DEGRADED, INSECURE'
Medical records tendered to court showed his seven years in asylum had left him "sad, degraded and insecure" with moderate to severe depression.
"I regret the course that this took; the difficulties were instead compounded and impacted upon very many others," he said. "While the difficulties I now face may have become even greater, nevertheless it is right for me to say this now."
Assange lawyer Mark Summers said the background to the charge was the WikiLeaks founder seeking asylum, which was a lawful act, and asked the judge to take into account the "extraordinary and difficult" situation - which was the fear of "removal from Sweden to American and even Guantanamo Bay".
Mr Summers cited the arrest and treatment of Chelsea Manning - a US soldier arrested over the leaks of the sensitive cables - who he said was subjected to sleep deprivation and paraded naked in front of military officers. That fear was playing on Assange's mind when he made the decision to skip bail, said the lawyer.
"As far as Mr Assange was concerned, he was acutely aware US authorities were interested in him, if I could put it as diplomatically as I can."
There was also a risk he could be forcibly "kidnapped" without the consent of the country he was in and taken to the US, Mr Summers said.
Assange was living in fear after the publication of sensitive WikiLeaks cables and "as the threats rained down on him", they dominated his thoughts at the time he committed the breach of bail, the lawyer added.
The Queensland-born computer programmer feared if he went to Sweden, authorities there would quickly deliver him to the US.
He argued Assange should be sentenced on the basis he had a genuine fear of extradition.
In June 2012, the WikiLeaks founder believed his extradition from Sweden to the US was "inevitable" so he "took the decision to seek refuge and seek asylum" at the Ecuadorean Embassy "to avoid persecution, solitary confinement and death penalty," said Mr Summers.
'EXPLOITING YOUR PRIVILEGED POSITION TO FLOUT THE LAW'
Judge Taylor said the case was at the higher end of the spectrum.
"In terms of harm, there are several features of this case which put this in the A1 category ... by entering the embassy you deliberately put yourself out of reach, whilst remaining in the UK. You remained there for nearly seven years, exploiting your privileged position to flout the law and advertise internationally your disdain for the laws of this country."
She said authorities had spent £16 million ($30 million) of taxpayers' money in security costs. "It is essential to the rule of law that nobody is above or beyond the reach of the law," she said.
The judge rejected outright his claims of being fearful of what the US might do to him.
"Nonetheless, you had a choice, and the course of action you chose was to commit this offence in the manner and with the features I have already outlined."
Before she passed a sentence, she told him: "It is difficult to envisage a more serious example of this offence."
Wikileaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said outside Southwark Crown Court he was angry at the sentence.
"This sentencing here today is an outrage," he said. "It is vindictive in nature and doesn't give us a lot of faith in the UK justice system."
He said there was another case in the UK - the so-called "speedboat killer" - where a man accused of manslaughter skipped bail and only received six months' jail.
'THE UK MUST RESIST!'
Assange was dragged from the embassy on April 11 after trying to barricade himself in his room at the embassy, where he told police: "This is unlawful."
He also yelled, "the UK must resist!" as he was led out - a reference to the extradition plans of the US Government.
At the initial hearing, the judge branded him a "narcissist who couldn't get beyond his own selfish interests" and deserved to be punished by the maximum sentence of 12 months.
Swedish prosecutors have said they are considering reopening their investigation into sexual assault allegations against him.
Assange faces charges in the US, with the US Attorney's Office issuing one count of conspiring with former army intelligence analyst Manning in the hacking of intelligence computers to expose intelligence operations in the United States.
There were concerns he could face the death penalty in the US if he were extradited and found guilty.
The extradition hearing will be held via video link at London's Westminster Crown Court tomorrow.
The public gallery was packed full of supporters, and many more couldn't get seats in court. Outside, hordes of supporters repeatedly called out: "Free Assange!"
The WikiLeaks founder has been locked up in Belmarsh prison in southeast London since his arrest.
The US accuses Assange of trying to help Manning hack a password on a Pentagon computer system before the release of 750,000 classified military and diplomatic documents on WikiLeaks. But the Justice Department has already failed to force Manning to testify before a grand jury about Assange, jailing her for contempt by refusing.
US authorities allege hacking the Pentagon password assisted in concealing Manning's identity as Assange's source for the military secrets abut the Iraq war.
"Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log on to the computers under a username that did not belong to her," reads the indictment against Assange. "Such a deceptive measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to determine the source of the illegal disclosures."
The US application for Assange's extradition has sparked controversy and protest by Assange supporters. His disappearance into the Ecuadorean embassy seven years ago came after a 2010 allegation of rape lodged by Swedish authorities. The allegations by two Swedish women of sexual misconduct against them by Assange were dropped in 2015 after the statute of limitations expired.
But Sweden may lodge a new request as women's groups pile pressure on British Home Secretary Sajid Javid to prioritise a Swedish application.