Julian Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 to escape extradition to Sweden, and has been living there ever since. (Photo: AP)
A British judge on Tuesday upheld a U.K. arrest warrant for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, leaving him still a wanted man in the country where he has spent more than five years inside the Ecuadorean Embassy.
Judge Emma Arbuthnot rejected a call from Assange’s lawyers for the warrant to be revoked because he is no longer wanted for questioning in Sweden over alleged sex crimes. It was issued in 2012 for jumping bail.
“I am not persuaded the warrant should be withdrawn,” Arbuthnot told lawyers, journalists and Assange supporters gathered at London’s Westminster Magistrates’ Court.
However, she allowed Assange’s lawyer to make a new set of arguments challenging whether it is in the public interest to continue the case against Assange, and said she would rule on them next week. A decision in Assange’s favor would end Britain’s case against him.
Assange, 46, has been holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London since he took refuge there in June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where prosecutors were investigating allegations of sexual assault and rape made by two women in 2010.
Swedish prosecutors dropped the case last year, saying there was no prospect of bringing Assange to Sweden in the foreseeable future. But Assange was still subject to the British warrant for breaching his bail conditions in 2012.
The judge said that if Assange wanted the warrant lifted he should surrender to authorities and come to court. She said he would be able to argue his case and “put an argument for reasonable cause” for breaching his bail conditions.
After the ruling keeping the warrant in place, the judge agreed to let Assange’s lawyer, Mark Summers, argue in his client’s absence that the warrant should be lifted because it was no longer in the public interest to arrest Assange.
Summers said Assange had several serious health problems including depression, and argued that the five and a half years he has spent inside the embassy were more than adequate punishment for his actions.
He also cited a U.N. report in support of Assange.
Arbuthnot said she would rule on those arguments Feb. 13.
Had the judge ruled in Assange’s favor on Tuesday, he would have been free to leave the embassy without being arrested on the British warrant.
However, Assange suspects there is a secret U.S. grand jury indictment against him for WikiLeaks’ publication of leaked classified American documents, and that American authorities will seek his extradition. He fears he will immediately be taken into custody if he leaves the embassy, sparking what would likely be a long legal battle against extradition to the U.S.
Assange lawyer Jennifer Robinson said after the court session that he is willing to face British justice if he receives a guarantee that he will not be sent to the U.S. to face prosecution.
“The British authorities’ failure to provide assurance against that risk is the reason he sought asylum in the embassy in the first place,” she said. “This is and has always been our overriding concern.”
U.S. officials haven’t confirmed whether a request for Assange’s extradition has been made.
Tuesday’s ruling prolongs a stalemate that has kept Assange as Ecuador’s houseguest for 5 ½ years. Last month, Ecuador said it had granted the Australian-born hacker citizenship in a bid to break the logjam.
Ecuador also asked Britain to grant him diplomatic status. Britain refused, saying “the way to resolve this issue is for Julian Assange to leave the embassy to face justice.”
If the British case against Assange is dropped, it might make it easier for Assange to obtain diplomatic status, which could ease his way for possible travel to Ecuador without risking arrest and extradition proceedings.
British prosecutors had opposed the removal of the warrant, saying Assange shouldn’t be immune from the law simply because he has managed to evade justice for a long time.
Extradition lawyer Rebecca Niblock, of the law firm Kingsley Napley, said before the ruling that Assange’s legal argument was a longshot.
“Failing to surrender to bail is like insulting the court’s authority” and unlikely to go down well with the court, she said.