Julian Assange loses first round of bid to overturn UK arrest warrant as he remains at Ecuadorian embassy

Court to consider new arguments from WikiLeaks founder's lawyers calling for case to be dropped

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 06 February 2018 15:23
Lauri Love visits Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy as his arrest warrant is upheld

Julian Assange could still be detained by British police after losing the first round of a bid to have a warrant for his arrest overturned.

The WikiLeaks’ founder’s lawyers argued that the warrant had “lost its purpose and its function” since investigations over alleged sexual assaults were dropped in Sweden.

But sitting at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, senior district judge Emma Arbuthnot said she was “not persuaded that the warrant should be withdrawn” based on their initial submissions.

Judge Arbuthnot told the packed courtroom Mr Assange was wanted for refusing to surrender to bail “without reasonable cause”, which is a criminal offence in itself.

She did not accept the argument that there must be “underlying proceedings” to maintain the warrant, adding: “It is not uncommon for Bail Act offences to be pursued when the substantive proceedings are no longer in existence.

“Many authorities underline the importance of a defendant attending court when bailed to do so and the administration of justice can be undermined by defendants who fail to attend.”

Mr Assange’s legal team made further arguments over public interest issues and Mr Assange’s health, which will be subject to a separate judgment on Tuesday.

Jennifer Robinson, a lawyer representing Julian Assange, talks outside Westminster Magistrates Court

Mark Summers QC told the court proceedings against his client should be discontinued because they were not proportionate or in the interests of justice.

“It is clear that Mr Assange had reasonable grounds for the course that he took,” he added. “The UN has ruled that his situation at present is arbitrary, unreasonable and disproportionate.”

Mr Summers claimed Mr Assange’s decision to flee to the Ecuadorian embassy had not frustrated Swedish legal proceedings, saying he offered his “full cooperation”.

Arguing the past five and a half years were “adequate, if not severe punishment” for skipping bail, the barrister said Mr Assange suffered from depression and health issues related to his confinement in a small room.

Mr Summers told the court a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyer had advised Swedish prosecutors that his client should be interviewed in Stockholm rather than London.

“Mr Assange sought to engage with the underlying process, requested to be interviewed in order to further it and the delay between 2012 and 2016, in which nothing happened, was the result, it appears, of advice that Sweden had received from a CPS lawyer,” he added.

Judge Arbuthnot said emails uncovered in a Freedom of Information request were “of interest to the court” before adjourning the hearing until Tuesday at 2pm.

Jennifer Robinson, a member of WikiLeaks’ legal team, said the “fight will continue until we can ensure his freedom”.

“Today we finally had the opportunity to put before the court the background to this case and the long history to the injustice that has led him to remain inside the Ecuadorian embassy,” she told crowds outside the court.

UK police have said Julian Assange faces arrest for breaching bail conditions if he leaves the embassy (Getty)

“Mr Assange remains willing to answer to British justice in relation to any argument about breach of bail but not at the expense of facing injustice in America.

“This case is, and has always been, about the risk of extradition to the US and that risk remains real.”

Ms Robinson called on the British Government to provide assurance that Mr Assange will not be extradited “so that this untenable situation can end”.

“Unless that assurance is given and the UK stops insisting on neither confirming or denying the existence of that warrant, he is at risk of extradition and that is the risk he entered the embassy for in the very first place,” she added.

“He knows what happened here today and we’ll be awaiting a decision next week.”

Mr Assange’s team argued that the risk of extradition to the US has heightened under Donald Trump’s administration, citing statements from the Attorney General and CIA director, who called WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service”.

The Australian activist was on bail when he fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012, over fears a Swedish investigation could be used to extradite him to the US for WikiLeaks’ activities.

But Sweden dropped its investigation into allegations of sexual offences in May 2017, causing a separate European Arrest Warrant to be scrapped.

At the time, the Metropolitan Police confirmed its officers were still required to arrest Mr Assange.

“Westminster Magistrates’ Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Julian Assange following him failing to surrender to the court on the 29 June 2012,“ a statement said.

“The Metropolitan Police Service is obliged to execute that warrant should he leave the embassy.”

As the Swedish investigation continued in December 2010, Mr Assange was jailed in Wandsworth Prison in isolation for 10 days and then put under house arrest for 550 days under powers granted by an international arrest warrant.

Scotland Yard stood down the 24/7 police presence outside the Ecuadorian Embassy building in 2015 but pledged to make “every effort” to arrest Mr Assange if he left.

There had been controversy over the escalating cost of the exercise, which was believed to be over £12m.

In May, Sweden’s director of public prosecutions said the preliminary rape and sexual assault probe was discontinued for logistical reasons.

“The decision to discontinue the investigation is not because we’ve been able to make a full assessment of the evidence, but because we didn’t see possibilities to advance the investigation,” Marianne Ny added, saying no judgment on guilt or innocence could be made.

Mr Assange, who was never charged, repeatedly said he was “entirely innocent” of the allegations, which stemmed from a meeting with the claimant in August 2010.

The Ecuadorian government has granted Mr Assange citizenship and sent letters on his behalf arguing that public declarations by US officials constituted an “obvious risk” for Mr Assange.

The UN called on Swedish and British authorities to free Mr Assange from “arbitrary detention” in a report released in 2016, with the UK failing to overturn the findings on appeal.

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