WikiLeaks splits as volunteers quit to set up rival website

Former WikiLeaks volunteers are planning to launch a rival whistle-blowing website next week amid growing indications that the US government is on the verge of filing its own charges against Julian Assange.

Lawyers for the 39-year-old Australian said yesterday that they believed American prosecutors are planning to charge the WikiLeaks founder using either espionage or computer misuse legislation.

Any US charges would create the prospect of Mr Assange having to fight two extradition battles, one to stop an attempted prosecution in Sweden over alleged sex offences, and a second to halt his extradition across the Atlantic.

The Vatican was the centre of last night's WikiLeaks revelations, which claimed that the Pope intervened to help secure the release of the 15 British sailors seized by the Iranians in 2007. Julieta Noyes, the US deputy chief of mission to the Vatican, told President Obama last year of the Vatican's role in the affair. The cables also show the British ambassador to the Vatican believed the Pope's call for Anglican opponents of women priests to convert to Catholicism brought relations between the UK and the pontiff to a 150-year low and could spark violence.

Yesterday WikiLeaks members who fell out with Mr Assange over his leadership style and personal politics said they were days away from launching OpenLeaks, an alternative whistle-blowing site which will forgo having a strong editorial figurehead deciding what to publish.

Herbert Snorrason, a former WikiLeaks volunteer from Iceland who defected to OpenLeaks, said: "The major difference between us and Wiki-Leaks is that we do not intend to publish documents directly. We will function as a conduit between a source and the media. If a source leaks direct to the media there is always the risk that the publication will be forced to identify the whistleblower. With OpenLeaks it will be impossible even for us to know where a source is."

The new website will use an encrypted submissions system to allow whistleblowers to leak material in confidence, and will allow the source to chose which media organisations it wants to leak to. The intention is to protect both the source and OpenLeaks from any political fallout.

The founder of OpenLeaks, Dominic Domscheit-Berg, used to be the WikiLeaks chief spokesperson until he defected in the summer after disagreements with Mr Assange. The German transparency campaigner accused the WikiLeaks founder of acting like "some kind of emperor or slave trader", and expressed concerns that the large-scale leaks of US government data distracted the whistle-blowing platform from publishing leaks from other sources. In an interview with the Swedish broadcaster SVT, to be aired tomorrow, Mr Domscheit-Berg will criticise the secrecy surrounding the website. "If you preach transparency to everyone else you have to be transparent yourself," he says.

Assange's prison regime

*Julian Assange's home for the foreseeable future is a simple cell on a seclusion wing at Wandsworth prison. He is allowed one hour's exercise a day and has been kept apart from other inmates for his own safety.

*As a former computer hacker, Mr Assange is not allowed to have a laptop computer in his cell, but his lawyers have requested one. "Obviously, we are trying to prepare a legal appeal and he has difficulty writing, so it would be much easier in order to assist us in the preparation if he had a laptop," his lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, told AFP.

*The Australian-born transparency campaigner is to appear in court again next Tuesday, when his case will be argued by the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson.

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