LONDON: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was sentenced Wednesday to 50 weeks in jail for breaching a British court order seven years ago, when he took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden.
The Australian whistleblower, who was arrested on April 11 after Ecuador gave him up, will serve the nearly one-year sentence while fighting a separate attempt to transfer him to the United States.
The 47-year-old, his shaggy beard neatly trimmed, raised his fist to supporters in the public gallery at London’s Southwark Crown Court as he was taken down to the cells.
They shouted “Shame on you!” toward the court.
WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson called the sentence an “outrage” at a press conference outside and said that focus would now shift to preventing Assange’s extradition to the US.
“It will be a question of life and death,” he warned.
Assange fled to Ecuador’s embassy in 2012 after a British judge ordered his extradition to face Swedish allegations of sexual assault and rape, which he strongly denied.
He claimed the allegations were a pretext to transfer him to the United States, where he feared prosecution over the release by WikiLeaks of millions of classified documents.
At the sentencing hearing, his lawyer Mark Summers said Assange had been “gripped” by “reasonable fears” that he would face rendition to the US.
“As threats rained down on him from America, they overshadowed everything as far as he was concerned,” the lawyer said.
In a letter read out on his behalf, Assange expressed regret, saying: “I did what I thought at the time was the best or perhaps the only thing that I could have done.”
But judge Deborah Taylor said it was “difficult to envisage a more serious example” of breaching bail, accusing Assange of exploiting “your privileged position to flout the law.”
There is no longer an active investigation in Sweden and the extradition request has lapsed.
However, Assange is facing a US extradition request, which was only revealed following his dramatic arrest, when he was dragged shouting from the embassy by police.
Assange appeared in court within hours of his arrest, and a judge found him guilty of breaching his bail conditions.
The biggest concern for his lawyers is the US extradition request. An initial hearing in the case has been scheduled for this Thursday.
The US indictment charges him with “conspiracy” for working with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a password stored on Department of Defense computers in March 2010.
Manning passed hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, exposing US military wrong-doing in the Iraq war and diplomatic secrets about scores of countries.
Assange could face up to five years in jail if found guilty, although his team is fighting his extradition and the process could take years.
The charge has raised serious concerns among free speech advocates, including politicians such as British opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
WikiLeaks is also back in the news in the United States, over its alleged role in the leak of Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016 US presidential election.
The Swedish claims against Assange date back to 2010, when he was at the center of a global storm over WikiLeaks’ exposures.
The sexual assault claim expired in 2015, but while the rape claim was dropped in 2017, the alleged victim wants the case reopened.
If Stockholm makes a formal extradition request, Britain must decide whether to consider it before or after that of the United States.
A group of British lawmakers have urged the Swedish case to take precedence, saying the rights of the alleged victims must not be lost in the political row.