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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, fighting extradition to Sweden over alleged sex crimes, was expected to walk free on bail on Thursday after London’s High Court upheld a decision to release him under strict conditions.
Assange, the target of U.S. fury over WikiLeaks’ publication of secret diplomatic cables, has spent nine days in a London jail after Sweden issued an arrest warrant for him over allegations of sexual misconduct made by two female WikiLeaks volunteers. Assange denies the accusations.
High Court Justice Duncan Ouseley upheld a lower court decision to release Assange on 200,000 pounds ($312,000) bail, rejecting an appeal by British prosecutors who had argued that the 39-year-old Australian was a flight risk.
“We are expecting Julian to be released some time later today (or) on a worst case analysis tomorrow,” Assange’s lawyer Mark Stephens told journalists massed outside the High Court in the rain.
WikiLeaks has angered U.S. authorities by publishing part of a trove of 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, including details of overseas installations that Washington regards as vital to its security.
As a condition of bail, Assange must live at Ellingham Hall, a country mansion and farm in eastern England that is the home of a former army officer and Assange supporter, Vaughan Smith.
Assange must also abide by a curfew, report to police daily, and wear an electronic tag.
Smith said some technical issues still had to be resolved but that his mansion would offer Assange peace and security.
“It’s quite hard to get too close without trespassing,” he told Sky News. “The Internet is not so good though.”
Stephens, who said he was “utterly delighted and thrilled” with the judge’s ruling, accused Swedish authorities of pursuing a vendetta against his client. All the bail money promised by Assange’s supporters had come through, he said.
The lawyer said Assange would not be going back to London’s Wandsworth prison and the cell that he said had once been occupied by the writer Oscar Wilde, who spent part of his sentence for gross indecency there in the 1890s.
Photographers caught Assange giving a defiant victory sign from within the police van taking him to court. He sat in the dock listening to proceedings from behind ornate metal bars.
Celebrities such as journalist John Pilger, film director Ken Loach and socialite Jemima Khan are backing Assange.
There was confusion over whether Britain or Sweden had been behind the bid to deny him bail. British prosecutors said they were acting as agents for Swedish authorities.
However, Sweden’s Director of Prosecution Marianna Ny said in a statement the case was in British hands and that the court’s decision did not change the case itself.
A lower court granted Assange bail on Tuesday, but prosecutors appealed to the High Court.
Prosecution lawyer Gemma Lindfield said the nature of the alleged offences provided strong incentive for him to abscond. She said many of his supporters were fighting a cause and might welcome him absconding.
Defense lawyer Geoffrey Robertson rejected her arguments. “He has always been available. He was never in hiding,” he told the court.
Ouseley, who ordered three slight amendments to Assange’s bail conditions, concluded that Assange “clearly does have some desire to clear his name because, if he were not to do so, the allegations would always be hanging over him.”
A full extradition hearing is expected in early February.
Assange and his lawyers have voiced fears that U.S. prosecutors might be preparing to indict him for espionage over WikiLeaks’ publication of the documents.
The New York Times reported that federal prosecutors were looking for evidence that Assange had conspired with a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst suspected of leaking classified documents in order to bring charges against him.
Stephens said Assange’s legal team had not considered the question of U.S. legal action “or the potential for it.”
Internet activists have tried to sabotage the websites of organizations they believe have obstructed WikiLeaks, including Visa, MasterCard and the Swedish prosecutor’s office.
Copyright © 2010 Reuters