WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange likes to portray himself as a freedom fighter helping whistle-blowers expose government wrongdoing. But on Tuesday a British judge painted a very different picture of Mr. Assange, calling him someone who lacks courage and believes he's above the law.
Mr. Assange "wants to impose his terms on the course of justice," Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot said in rejecting a bid by Mr. Assange to quash a British arrest warrant for skipping bail. "He appears to consider himself above the normal rules of law and wants justice only if it goes in his favour."
The ruling leaves the Australian-born Mr. Assange in a continued state of legal limbo and raises questions about the future of WikiLeaks, which has a long and controversial history of publishing leaked documents. He has been holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for nearly six years, avoiding the British arrest warrant over fears he'll be sent to the United States and prosecuted for WikiLeaks's disclosures. But now he has to decide whether to emerge from the embassy and face arrest for jumping bail or maintain his self-imposed embassy refuge and hope for a diplomatic resolution. Meanwhile, his oversight of WikiLeaks remains questionable as his years of isolation continue.
In a statement released on Twitter after the ruling, Mr. Assange said he was surprised by the decision and hinted he will appeal. The judge "went well outside what the parties presented in court," he said. "This seems to have led to many factual errors in the judgment."
He still has a dedicated following and a couple dozen supporters packed the courtroom to listen to the judge read her ruling. Many gasped at her comments and one woman was near tears. After the hearing, the group stood outside the courthouse holding banners and chanting: "Free Assange"
Mr. Assange, 46, has been a divisive figure since 2010 when WikiLeaks published 250,000 secret diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies around the world and thousands of classified documents related to U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. WikiLeaks also played a high-profile role in the last U.S. presidential election, posting thousands of internal e-mails from high-ranking Democrats and raising suspicions that Russia tried to interfere in the election. Many U.S. politicians and officials have called for Mr. Assange to be arrested but so far no criminal charges have been laid.
Mr. Assange's legal troubles in Britain began in November 2010 when Swedish officials issued a European Arrest Warrant for him as part of an investigation into sexual-assault allegations raised by two WikiLeaks volunteers in Sweden. Mr. Assange was arrested in London and granted bail. After several hearings and appeals, a British court ordered his extradition to Sweden in 2012 but Mr. Assange failed to hand himself over and instead sought asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy. A British court promptly issued an arrest warrant for skipping bail.
Mr. Assange has always insisted that the Swedish case was simply a cover for him to be handed over to U.S. justice officials. He's lived in a cramped room in the embassy and even though Ecuador has granted him citizenship, he can't leave the embassy without being arrested on the U.K. warrant. Swedish prosecutors dropped the sexual-assault case last year, saying they couldn't proceed without him being present in court, and they withdrew the European Arrest Warrant. But the British arrest warrant still stands.
Lawyers for Mr. Assange headed to court last month to argue that the warrant was no longer needed, given that the Swedish case had ended, and that it was reasonable for him to seek asylum in the embassy because of his fears about extradition to the U.S. They also said he had suffered enough for skipping bail, citing his deteriorating health which includes dental issues, a shoulder problem and severe depression. And they noted that a United Nations working group on arbitrary detention recently criticized Britain, saying Mr. Assange had been forced to choose between two impossible situations and that his living conditions were harsh.
Judge Arbuthnot threw out each argument. She said there was no evidence that U.S. officials would seek Mr. Assange's extradition and that even if they did, he would be able to fight it in a British court. She also called the UN group's work flawed and said Mr. Assange hardly had a harsh life. He could leave the embassy at any time, he had unlimited visitors and he could even sit in the sunlight on the embassy balcony, she said. "Importantly for a man who spends a great deal of time on his computer, he is free to use multimedia, whether his computer or a mobile telephone, in a way that prisoners are not allowed to do." While she accepted that Mr. Assange had a sore tooth, a bad shoulder and suffered depression, Judge Arbuthnot said "his health problems could be much worse."
"I must look at the impact on public confidence in the criminal justice system if Mr. Assange is allowed to avoid a warrant for his arrest by staying out of reach of the police for years in conditions which are nothing like a prison," she said. "Defendants on bail up and down the country … come to court to face the consequences of their own choices. He should have the courage to do so too."
Mr. Assange's lawyer, Gareth Peirce, said she wasn't sure if he would launch an appeal. When asked if she was disappointed by the ruling, Ms. Peirce replied: "The history of the case from start to finish is so extraordinary that each aspect of it becomes puzzling and troubling as it is scrutinized."