WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange refused bail after avoiding extradition to US

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's hopes for freedom have been dashed after a judge refused him bail despite a decision to block his extradition to the United States.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected an application for the 49-year-old to be released with strict conditionals on Wednesday over concern he would abscond.

It follows a decision that he should not be extradited to the US on mental health grounds due to the risk of suicide.

Assange will have to remain in custody as the US government is appealing against Monday's extradition ruling.

Announcing her bail decision at Westminster Magistrates' Court, Judge Baraitser said: "As a matter of fairness, the US must be allowed to challenge my decision and if Mr Assange absconds during this process they will lose the opportunity to do so.

"Mr Assange still has a huge support network available to him should he again choose to go to ground."

On fears of Covid-19 spreading in Belmarsh prison, the judge added that the latest information demonstrated it was managing the health of inmates.

Julian Assange extradition
Court artist sketch of Julian Assange at the Old Bailey in London (Elizabeth Cook/PA)

Presenting his argument for bail, Ed Fitzgerald QC, for Assange, told Judge Baraitser: "In essence, we say, your decision changes everything and it certainly changes any motive to abscond rather than to continue to pursue his remedies within this country and with confidence in the due process in this country.

"We say after all this time, after the length of proceedings of a year in which you rightly stressed the importance of his liberty at stake and importance of a decision. And a decision has been taken – he should be discharged.

"'I discharge you from this extradition request' should mean he should at least regain his conditional liberty."

The lawyer said Assange wished for a "sheltered life" with his family, adding it would be his first opportunity to live with his young children since he took up residence at the Ecuador embassy.

A "significant number of responsible people" had offered "substantial sums" of surety for Assange, the court heard.

Police officers and members of the media outside Westminster Magistrates' Court, London
Police officers and members of the media outside Westminster Magistrates' Court (Yui Mok/PA)

On the suggestion Assange could again seek refuge in an embassy, Mr Fitzgerald said: "It is pretty clear the experience of going to the Ecuador embassy in the end was an extremely unpleasant one leading to him being confined for some seven years and a change in government leading to a change in the position. That is not something he is ever likely to repeat.

"He can be put under house arrest but at least he will finally regain his liberty and be able to have the benefit of the long-awaited decision of this court."

Clair Dobbin, for the US government, argued that Assange had "shown himself as capable of going to extraordinary lengths to avoid extradition".

Ms Dobbin told the court the history of Assange's case demonstrated that he "regards himself as above the law and no cost is too great, whether that cost be to himself or others".

The lawyer added: "Given Mr Assange's conduct, there is no surety that would secure his attendance."

She said the court should be under no illusions as to the willingness of other states to help Assange, citing the president of Mexico offering him asylum in his daily briefing.

Assange has already spent years in confinement and will have to wait to be reunited soon with his fiancee Stella Moris, who attended court, and their two young sons.

Assange has been held in Belmarsh high security jail since he was carried out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London by police before being arrested for breaching his bail conditions in April 2019.

Stella Moris arrives at Westminster Magistrates' Court
Stella Moris was at court (Yui Mok/PA)

He had entered the embassy in 2012 after exhausting all legal avenues to avoid extradition to Sweden to face sex offence allegations, which he has always denied and were eventually dropped.

Assange is still wanted in the US on an 18-count indictment, alleging a plot to hack computers and a conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information.

The prosecution followed WikiLeaks' publication of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents in 2010 and 2011 relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as diplomatic cables.

Prosecutors say Assange helped US defence analyst Chelsea Manning breach the Espionage Act in unlawfully obtaining material, was complicit in hacking by others, and published classified information that put the lives of US informants in danger.

Assange denies plotting with Ms Manning to crack an encrypted password on US Department of Defence computers and says there is no evidence that anyone's safety was put at risk.

His lawyers had said he faced up to 175 years in jail if convicted, although the US government said the sentence was more likely to be between four and six years.

A police van arrives at Westminster Magistrates' Court
A police van arrives at Westminster Magistrates' Court (Yui Mok/PA)

The defence legal team argued that the US prosecution is political and said Assange, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and severe depression, is a high suicide risk if he is extradited.

However on Monday, Judge Baraitser rejected the argument that US prosecutors were under pressure from the Donald Trump administration.

She said Assange's dealings with Ms Manning "went beyond the mere encouragement of a journalist" and that he was "well aware" of the danger to informants by disclosing unredacted names in leaked documents.