House arrest on an estate so big his tag may not work
Friday 17 December 2010
For Julian Assange, the contrast between the cell in Wandsworth prison and his new accommodation in a 300-year-old mansion will be epitomised by the rectangular box he must wear on his ankle to relay his whereabouts at all times.
Whereas the WikiLeaks founder could barely stretch his 6ft 2in frame across the billet in solitary confinement once occupied by Oscar Wilde, his quarters in the 10-bedroom Ellingham Hall and its 600 acres of countryside on the Suffolk-Norfolk border is so vast that he will have to restrict himself to the elegant Georgian house and its immediate surroundings – for fear of setting off his security tag.
The 39-year-old Australian will be the subject of an atypical form of house arrest. Ellingham Hall, close to the village of Bungay, is the ancestral home of Captain Vaughan Smith, the former British Army officer and journalist who is a key supporter of the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief. It has emerged that while journalists and, presumably the US government, sought to establish Mr Assange's whereabouts as WikiLeaks began to publish diplomatic cables two weeks ago, he had been at the Frontline Club, the central London haunt for reporters, which is owned by Captain Smith.
The entrepreneur said his well-appointed home and surrounding land offered several advantages as a bail address for the poster boy of libertarians around the world, not least the fact that its splendid isolation makes it more difficult for those threatening Mr Assange's wellbeing from getting too close.
Captain Smith, who apologised in advance to villagers for the inevitable phalanx of satellite vans and photographers that will now descend on Bungay, said: "It does offer a place where Julian might have some peace and security. Because Norfolk is flat and better for it, it's quite hard to actually get to without trespassing, so it would be hard to get that close and intrusive. That's a good thing."
The former Grenadier Guard said that either his wife or a member of his staff would greet Mr Assange when he arrived in East Anglia, and help him negotiate the thicket of practical problems presented by his stringent bail conditions.
As well as wearing the security tag and surrendering his passport, the Australian must observe a daily curfew between 10pm and 2am and 10am and 2pm and report daily to police in the market town of Beccles between 2pm and 5pm.
Norfolk Police would not discuss whether police would be posted around Ellingham Hall for Mr Assange's protection and to check on his whereabouts, but it did confirm that an officer would be available on 26, 27 and 28 December and 1 and 3 January, when Beccles' police station would be shut.
WikiLeaks colleagues of Mr Assange said he would continue to co-ordinate the publication of leaked documents from his East Anglian refuge. It might, however, take time. Captain Smith yesterday admitted that his internet connection was slow.
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