Celebrities flock to see free speech 'go on trial'

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The Independent Online

The diminutive figure of Bianca Jagger pushed her way through the scrum as a man with a megaphone repeated "Exposing war crimes is no crime" and hundreds gathered outside City of Westminster magistrates' court chanted back "Free Julian now". It was, banners proclaimed, "Democracy on trial".

Albanian, Japanese, French and American media jostled to glimpse the WikiLeaks founder as he was brought from Wandsworth prison. A supporting cast of celebrities – Jemima Khan, John Pilger, Ken Loach, Tariq Ali – also made an appearance.

Mr Assange, 39, looked pale and exhausted as he emerged into the tiny Court One. His mother, Christine, sat nearby during the hour-long hearing.

Journalists tapped busily on smartphones, normally banned from such hearings, after District Judge Howard Riddle took the unprecedented decision to allow them to tweet from the proceedings.

Gemma Lindfield, for the Swedish authorities, claimed that Mr Assange, whom they want to extradite over claims that he sexually assaulted two women, was a flight risk.

Captain Vaughan Smith, a former Grenadier Guards officer and founder of the journalists' Frontline Club, insisted that Mr Assange was "a very honourable person, hugely courageous and self-deprecatory" as he offered a surety of £20,000 and residence at his estate, Ellingham Hall, in Suffolk.

Outside, Khan and Pilger paced expectantly. "The whole thing is bizarre and absurd," said the campaigning journalist, insisting that any case against Mr Assange was politically motivated: "People aren't stupid, they understand."

Mr Assange was returned for another night in jail after Swedish prosecutors appealed against his bail. His solicitor, Mark Stephens, said: "The Swedes will not abide with the umpire's decision and they want to put Mr Assange through yet more trouble... This is turning into a show trial."

Outside court, Hazel Sabey said: "It is not just about one man on trial, it is about a whole concept of freedom and civil liberties. We are all on trial. He doesn't stand alone. We stand with him shoulder to shoulder."