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Julian Assange jailed for 50 weeks over breach of bail conditions

The WikiLeaks founder had gone into hiding for nearly seven years at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Court artist sketch of Julian Assange appearing at Southwark Crown Court (Elizabeth Cook/PA)
Court artist sketch of Julian Assange appearing at Southwark Crown Court (Elizabeth Cook/PA)

Julian Assange has been jailed for 50 weeks for breaching his bail conditions after going into hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London while he was wanted over allegations of sexual offences.

The WikiLeaks founder spent nearly seven years living in the embassy – where he sought political asylum – until last month, when he was dramatically dragged out by police.

Assange wrote to Southwark Crown Court, apologising for his actions, which he said he regretted and acknowledged may have placed him in a graver situation.

Judge Deborah Taylor said this was the first time he had expressed contrition over his actions, which she said cost at least £16 million in public funds.

I found myself struggling with difficult circumstances. Julian Assange

The judge told a packed court it was “difficult to envisage a more serious example” of breaching the Bail Act, as she sentenced him to 50 weeks’ imprisonment, just short of the one year maximum.

Assange – with his beard neatly trimmed, in a stark contrast to the scruffy figure he cut as he was hauled from the embassy – defiantly raised his fist to supporters when he was led to the cells.

They shouted “free Julian” and “shame on you” to the court.

Moments earlier, Judge Taylor had told Assange: “Firstly, by entering the embassy, you deliberately put yourself out of reach, whilst remaining in the UK.

“You remained there for nearly seven years, exploiting your privileged position to flout the law and advertise internationally your disdain for the law of this country.”

She also said his actions “undoubtedly” affected Swedish prosecutors’ efforts, which were discontinued “not least because you remained in the embassy”.

In a bid to secure a lower sentence, the 47-year-old wrote to the court saying he went into hiding while “struggling with terrifying circumstances”.

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Julian Assange (Victoria Jones/PA)

“I apologise unreservedly to those who consider that I have disrespected them by the way I have pursued my case,” he said in the handwritten letter.

“I did what I thought at the time was the best and perhaps the only thing that could be done – which I hoped might lead to a legal resolution being reached between Ecuador and Sweden that would protect me from the worst of my fears.

“I regret the course that this took.

“Whilst the difficulties I now face may have become even greater, nevertheless it is right for me to say this now.”

In mitigation for Assange, Mark Summers QC told the court the Australian had been “gripped” by fears that his work with WikiLeaks would provoke rendition to Guantanamo Bay or the US, where he could face the death penalty.

“As threats rained down on him from America, they overshadowed everything as far as he was concerned,” Mr Summers said.

“They dominated his thoughts. They were not invented by him, they were gripping him throughout.”

This was no “figment of his imagination”, the lawyer said, citing examples where Sweden sent people to states where they were “at significant risk of ill-treatment, including torture and death”.

But the judge found that the background to the case was being used as mitigation “rather than as any reasonable excuse” for Assange’s failure to surrender.

She also said the £16 million figure was spent in ensuring that he was brought to justice if he did voluntarily leave his hiding place.

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Julian Assange, pictured at the embassy in 2017 (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Assange entered the embassy on June 19 2012 while under intense scrutiny over the leaks of hundreds of thousands of classified US diplomatic cables on his whistleblowing website.

The drastic move came after he exhausted all legal options in fighting extradition to Sweden over two separate allegations – one of rape and one of molestation.

Assange, claiming he was the subject of an American “witch hunt”, said he was at risk of being taken to the US if he was sent to the Scandinavian nation.

On Thursday, he will face a hearing about his potential extradition to the US over the allegation he conspired with intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to infiltrate Pentagon computers.

Prosecutors in Sweden are also considering whether to reopen the sexual assault case against Assange, which was dropped in May 2017. Assange denies the allegations.

His eviction from the embassy on April 11 came after a souring of relations, with Ecuador’s president Lenin Moreno claiming Assange had tried to use the Knightsbridge site for spying.

Hours later he was taken to Westminster Magistrates’ Court, where he was found guilty of the bail breach after failing to surrender to police on June 29 2012.

On Wednesday, the street leading up to the Southwark court was lined with barriers, with security anticipating groups of demonstrators where fans later chanted: “No extradition, there’s only one decision.”

Speaking after the sentencing, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said the sentence was an “outrage” and “vindictive in nature”.

But the “big fight”, he added, is now opposing extradition which he called “a question of life and death for Mr Assange”.

PA

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