Wednesday 25 April 2018

Julian Assange supporters lose thousands of pounds each in court surety ruling

Alan Jones

BACKERS who stood as sureties for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange before he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London have been ordered to pay thousands of pounds.

Chief Magistrate Howard Riddle said the nine had to pay £93,500 (€115,000) by November 6.

Mr Assange has been in Ecuador's London embassy since June as part of his bid to avoid extradition to Sweden.

He fears being sent to the United States if he travels to Sweden, to face interrogation over the whistle-blowing website.

He has been granted political asylum by Ecuador but faces arrest if he leaves the embassy after breaking bail conditions.

Vaughan Smith, a friend who put Assange up at his country mansion for more than a year, addressed Westminster Magistrates Court last week on behalf of the nine, who put up £140,000 between them.

He said all those who offered sureties, of varying amounts, are "convinced that they have done and are doing the right thing".

In his ruling today, the Chief Magistrate said he accepted that the nine had all acted in good faith.

"I accept that they trusted Mr Assange to surrender himself as required. I accept that they followed the proceedings and made necessary arrangements to remain in contact with him.

"However, they failed in their basic duty, to ensure his surrender. They must have understood the risk and the concerns of the courts.

"Both this court and the High Court assessed that there were substantial grounds to believe the defendant would abscond, and that the risk could only be met by stringent conditions including the sureties," he said.

Exercising power under section 120 (3) of the 1980 Magistrates Court Act, the Chief Magistrate said he adjudged each of the sureties had to pay part of the sum originally pledged, as follows:

Tricia David £10,000, Caroline Evans £15,000, Joseph Farrell £3,500, Sarah Harrison £3,500, Phillip Knightley £15,000, Sarah Saunders £12,000, Vaughan Smith £12,000, John Sulston £15,000 and Tracy Worcester £7,500.

He continued: "I say immediately that I have real respect for the way that the sureties have conducted themselves in difficult circumstances. I am satisfied that what they have said and written accurately reflects their genuine views.

"In declining to publicly (or as far as I know privately) urge Mr Assange to surrender himself they have acted against self-interest. They have acted on their beliefs and principles throughout. In what is sometimes considered to be a selfish age, that is admirable.

"A surety undertakes to forfeit a sum of money if the defendant fails to surrender as required. Considerable care is taken to explain that obligation and the consequences before a surety is taken.

"This system, in one form or another, has great antiquity. It is immensely valuable. A court concerned that a defendant will fail to surrender will not normally know that defendant personally, nor indeed much about him.

"When members of the community who do know the defendant say they trust him to surrender and are prepared to stake their own money on that trust, that can have a powerful influence on the decision of the court as to whether or not to grant bail."

The UK Government stressed to Ecuador last month that it was under an obligation to extradite Mr Assange to Sweden, where he faces questioning over sex crimes claims.

Foreign Secretary William Hague held talks with Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patino in New York during a United Nations meeting.

The Chief Magistrate said heavy reliance had been placed on Assange's "strongly held fears" of being removed to the United States.

He said: "That fear was held, and publicly expressed, right from the very beginning. Indeed, in the early days there was a widely expressed view that extradition to Sweden was a masquerade for the real intention of the Swedish authorities to forward Mr Assange to the United States and even Guantánamo Bay.

"What is undoubtedly unique is that the defendant sought, and has apparently been granted, asylum by Ecuador. It was suggested that the defendant is simply seeking an alternative legal process.

"However, in principle I see no difference between seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, and taking flight to that country. In extradition cases in particular there is not infrequently a possibility that a defendant might seek refuge in a state friendly to him. I am simply unimpressed by the parallel legal process argument.

"Mr Assange has an obligation to comply with the legal requirements of this country to surrender to the bail granted on terms originally set by the High Court."

The Chief Magistrate said he had taken account of the means of the nine, adding: "Professor David is a pensioner and the sum of £20,000 comprises a substantial portion of her savings jointly with her husband.

"Sarah Saunders has also provided details of her financial position and I am satisfied that she is of comparatively limited means. Mr Vaughan Smith tells me that if he forfeits the £20,000 surety it will have a significant impact on the welfare of his family and his employees. Having seen and heard from the sureties, I cannot avoid taking some account of their integrity.

"I approach this decision on the basis that I should forfeit no more than is necessary, in public policy, to maintain the integrity and confidence of the system of taking sureties so that a person may be released on bail."

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