Assange bail backers must wait to find out if they lose bail surety


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The Independent Online

High-profile supporters of Julian Assange will have to wait to find out if they will lose £140,000 of surety cash after the Australian sought political asylum.

The Wikileaks founder has been holed up at the Ecuadorian Embassy since June 19, a move which has already lost celebrity backers £200,000 they gave for his bail.

During a half-hour hearing at Westminster Magistrates' Court today, supporters of 41-year-old Assange were told a decision will be made in "a few days".

Vaughan Smith, a friend who put Assange up at his country mansion for more than a year, addressed the court 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".

Arguing why they should not lose their money, he told Chief Magistrate Howard Riddle: "We don't see how justice is served by punishing us for having done our best to serve the public interest in this complex and challenging case.

"We submit that the sureties are wholly blameless, that we have worked assiduously to help Mr Assange to meet the requirements of the court.

"We all want Mr Assange to be able to clear his name and have done everything with our diminishing influence to see the current impasse resolved and justice served."

Former Army officer Mr Smith put £20,000 towards the total surety.

The other eight backers are retired professor Tricia David, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir John Sulston, journalist Philip Knightley, Lady Caroline Evans, friend Sarah Saunders, Joseph Farrell, Sarah Harrison and Tracy Worcester.

Mr Smith said the group agreed they should not urge Assange to leave the embassy, so they stand more of a chance of keeping their money, because that would make them "mercenary and contemptible individuals".

He told the court: "We never envisaged when we agreed to become sureties that the matter would become a diplomatic argument and it is clear that this needs to be resolved at a governmental level.

"We request that sureties in this case be treated gracefully, in a manner that reflects the impossible position that we are in.

"In this unique, this quite exceptional case, complying with what this court seems to expect from us - to all publicly urge Mr Assange to abandon the sanctuary that he has found in the Ecuadorian embassy - would see us acting against a man whom we and others judge to have understandable fears about his ultimate treatment in the United States if he abandons his asylum.

"That would render us mercenary and contemptible individuals of great weakness of character. It cannot be the right thing for us to do."

Mr Smith, the founder of the Frontline Club for journalists, said the group had visited Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy, where he told them he feared persecution from the US authorities.

The Australian sought asylum after he lost a legal battle against extradition to Sweden, where he faces allegations of sexual assault, which he denies.

A group of supporters including the celebrities Jemima Khan, John Pilger and Ken Loach have already lost £200,000 after Assange broke his bail conditions by fleeing to the embassy.

Mr Smith added: "Mr Assange expressed concern about the risk of forfeiture that the sureties face, however it was clear from our visit that sureties do not have the power to meaningfully intervene in this matter.

"This has become a matter between the Ecuadorian, British, Swedish, US and Australian governments."

Judge Riddle's decision will be sent to the sureties and the press, without a court hearing taking place.

He said: "I'm not going to give a decision (today), because there's a lot to read, and a fair amount to think about."