Thursday 22 August 2019

Assange jailed for 50 weeks over bail breach despite apology

Sentence: Julian Assange leaves Southwark Crown Court in London. AP Photo/Matt Dunham
Sentence: Julian Assange leaves Southwark Crown Court in London. AP Photo/Matt Dunham

Sam Blewett

Julian Assange has been jailed for 50 weeks for breaching his bail conditions after going into hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London while he was wanted over allegations of sexual offences.

The WikiLeaks founder spent nearly seven years living in the embassy, where he sought political asylum, until last month, when he was dragged out by police.

Assange wrote to Southwark Crown Court, apologising for his actions, which he said he regretted and acknowledged may have placed him in a graver situation.

Judge Deborah Taylor said it was the first time he had expressed contrition over his actions, which she said cost at least £16m (€18.6m) in public funds.

She said it was "difficult to envisage a more serious example" of breaching the Bail Act, as she sentenced him to 50 weeks in jail, just short of the one-year maximum.

Assange - with his beard neatly trimmed, in a stark contrast to the scruffy figure he cut as he was hauled from the embassy on April 11 - defiantly raised his fist to supporters when he was led to the cells.

They shouted "free Julian" and "shame on you" to the court.

Judge Taylor had told Assange: "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 law of this country."

She said this "undoubtedly" affected Swedish prosecutors' efforts, which were discontinued "not least because you remained in the embassy".

In a bid to secure a lower sentence, the 47-year-old wrote to the court, saying he went into hiding while "struggling with terrifying circumstances".

"I apologise unreservedly to those who consider that I have disrespected them by the way I have pursued my case," he said. "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."

In mitigation for Assange, Mark Summers QC told the court the Australian had been "gripped" by fears that his work with WikiLeaks would provoke rendition to Guantanamo Bay or the US, where he could face the death penalty.

"As threats rained down on him from America, they overshadowed everything, as far as he was concerned," Mr Summers said.

But the judge found the background to the case was being used as mitigation "rather than as any reasonable excuse" for Assange's failure to surrender.

Assange entered the embassy on June 19, 2012, while under intense scrutiny over the leaks of hundreds of thousands of classified US diplomatic cables on his whistleblowing website. The drastic move came after he exhausted all legal options in fighting extradition to Sweden over two separate allegations - one of rape and one of molestation.

Assange, claiming he was the subject of a "witch hunt", said he was at risk of being taken to the US if he was sent to the Scandinavian nation.

Tomorrow, he will face a hearing about his potential extradition to the US over the allegation he conspired with Chelsea Manning to infiltrate Pentagon computers.

Prosecutors in Sweden are also considering whether to reopen the sexual assault case against Assange, which was dropped in May 2017. Assange denies the allegations.

Irish Independent

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