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A supporter of Julian Assange wears a mask depicting his face outside Westminster Magistrates Court on December 7, 2010 in London, England. (Peter Macdiarmid/Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
A supporter of Julian Assange wears a mask depicting his face outside Westminster Magistrates Court on December 7, 2010 in London, England. (Peter Macdiarmid/Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

WikiLeaks persists as Assange is locked up Add to ...

It would put a strain on any corporation to see its founder and chief executive led away to jail on accusations of sex crimes in the middle of its biggest and most important international deal.

But WikiLeaks is a most unusual corporation, one that has often seemed inextricable from the personality and whims of its mercurial founder, Julian Assange. So when the 39-year-old Australian turned himself in for arrest Tuesday on a lurid array of unproven sex-assault accusations and was subsequently placed in custody without bail, it was not at all clear what would become of his secret-document leaking service.

In the hours that followed, it appeared that WikiLeaks is robust enough to survive its founder's personal peccadilloes in the short term, and to endure the loss of many of its revenue sources and bank accounts by a United States government apparently bent on putting it out of business.

But the attention garnered by the charges, the erratic if not necessarily illegal behaviour that underlies them, and the increasingly brazen claims and boasts made by Mr. Assange this week sometimes seemed to overshadow the contents of the stolen State Department cables and the larger cause of document transparency that Mr. Assange claims to champion.

For Mr. Assange, Tuesday's court appearance seemed to give him an unpleasant taste of his own medicine, as a lawyer acting for the Swedish prosecutor read descriptions of embarrassing details of his private sex life to the assembled media and public. The accusations, the judge was eager to point out, had nothing to do with WikiLeaks. But it was impossible to avoid the sense that barriers between private and public, and between Mr. Assange and the entity he created, had dissolved permanently.

Moments after Mr. Assange was led into custody without bail, his lawyer, Mark Stephens, described his organization as a larger corporation that could function independent of its founder.

"WikiLeaks will continue," Mr. Stephens said. "WikiLeaks is many thousands of journalists reporting news around the world."

He added that a renewed bail application would be made, but that his legal team hadn't seen any of the evidence against Mr. Assange. And he repeated his frequent claim - without offering evidence - that the sex accusations are politically motivated. (The Swedish prosecutor vehemently denied any political interference or motive, and noted that Mr. Assange was being treated the same as anyone else facing such accusations.)

And within hours, WikiLeaks proved its point, managing to divulge another tranche of secret U.S. State Department diplomatic cables, part of the 250,000 documents it was allegedly handed by an American soldier taken from a facility in the Persian Gulf.

This was despite having many of its websites shut down this week after service providers in a dozen countries faced pressure from U.S. officials, who hinted they might be charged as accomplices if WikiLeaks is prosecuted for undisclosed crimes.

As a private company, incorporated in Iceland and possibly other countries and possessing a number of bank accounts and offices around the world, the structure of WikiLeaks is unknown, so it is hard to say how hard it has been hit by the Web shutdowns or by its loss of access to Visa, PayPal, its Swiss bank accounts and other sources of revenue.

Whatever the case, Mr. Assange did not feel that he or WikiLeaks had been placed in sufficient jeopardy to trigger what his lawyer called the "thermonuclear device," a 1.3-gigabyte cache of hundreds of thousands of unexpurgated cables, already distributed to tens of thousands of Internet activists, whose unbreakable 256-bit encryption key will be revealed if Mr. Assange or his associates feel threatened.

On Tuesday night, other WikiLeaks officials told the media that they did not plan to use this "insurance policy" at the present time.

But there are wider signs that Mr. Assange's personality has overtaken, and in some cases damaged, the cause of WikiLeaks.

His company's websites have been unable to accept any new leaks, whatever their source, for several months, in large part because WikiLeaks relies on his own attention to files and he has apparently failed to delegate the management of leaks. He has been overwhelmed by the vast file allegedly stolen by U.S. Private Bradley Manning, which included Pentagon files related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

And he has mixed his personal life with his business in numerous ways. He refused to give the State Department cables to The New York Times, one of the half-dozen major media outlets he has previously used to publish his leaks, because The Times had earlier printed a front-page profile of Mr. Assange that drew attention to less savoury aspects of his personality, including allegations that he is a difficult boss.

The Times was able to publish the documents only after the Guardian, the British newspaper, shared a copy with them out of sympathy and a desire to spread the libel-trial risk more widely. In private, editors of two of the newspapers and magazines that publish WikiLeaks documents said that Mr. Assange is a difficult negotiator sometimes driven by personal motives.

And in September, according to British reports, there was a schism within the WikiLeaks company over what volunteers described as Mr. Assange's domineering leadership, leading one faction to quit with plans to form a competing leak-handling company.

The sex-crime accusations, whatever their legal merit, threaten to fuse the personal life and business ambitions of Mr. Assange in ways that could hurt future leaks, and Tuesday's hearing seemed to mark the beginning of a period during which both supporters and opponents of WikiLeaks are forced to confront its founder's personality.

Mr. Assange attempted to remain aloof from such controversies Tuesday. As he listened to words alternately humiliating and heartening - talk of his "naked, erect penis" followed by testimonials from famous supporters - the expression on Mr. Assange's face remained impassive.

Even as he was led away by two guards after being refused bail and discovering he'd have to remain in custody until his next court appearance on Dec. 14, there was barely a flicker of emotion on his face.

Wearing a navy suit and an open-necked white shirt, he sat quietly with hands clasped as Gemma Lindfield, a lawyer acting for the Swedish prosecutor's office, read details from the four charges, all related to sexual encounters that occurred during an August visit to Sweden.

"These are extremely serious allegations," Judge Howard Riddle said.

Among those offering to put up bail deposits of £20,000 each were Ken Loach, the British movie director; Jemima Khan, British socialite and ex-girlfriend of actor Hugh Grant; and John Pilger, a well-known left-wing columnist in Britain.

The first three charges related to a woman described as Miss A: "unlawful coercion," based on her claim that he used his body weight to hold down her arms and legs; "sexual molestation," for failing to use a condom against his partner's will; and "deliberate molestation" in a way "designed to violate her sexual integrity."

A second woman, named as Miss W., also alleges that he refused her request to use a condom, and "improperly exploited the fact that she was asleep."

The charges all appear to be based on accusations from the two women - one who hosted a party for him after a speaking appearance in Stockholm and the other who appeared to pursue him sexually in the manner of a groupie after a rock star - that he forced them to have unprotected sex against their demands otherwise.

The detailed affidavit read in court offered ambiguous evidence that, depending on interpretation and further evidence, could be construed as a serious act of sexual assault by Mr. Assange or a frivolous case of miscommunication during consenting sex acts.

Ms. Lindfield successfully argued that Mr. Assange should be denied bail because he is a flight risk, living a "nomadic existence," and because he had access to large amounts of cash and that he might seek asylum in Switzerland.

Mr. Assange's lawyer called this last allegation "nonsense" and pointed out that his Swiss bank account had been frozen. "This is a man who has no previous convictions and has voluntarily surrendered to police," the lawyer said.

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