Wikileaks protests in Spain over Julian Assange arrest
Protests have taken place across Spain calling for the release of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is facing extradition from the UK to Sweden for alleged sexual offences.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the British embassy in Madrid calling for him to be freed.
Wikileaks is publishing insights from hundreds of thousands of sensitive US diplomatic and military documents.
The demonstrators believe Mr Assange’s detention is politically motivated.
The whistle-blowing website has angered and embarrassed governments around the world through its publication in recent weeks of classified US diplomatic cables.
Mr Assange was detained in the UK after Sweden secured an international warrant for his arrest.
Prosecutors in Sweden say they want to question him in connection with the sexual offence allegations.
There have also been calls from some in the US for his arrest and prosecution on charges related directly to Wikileaks’ activity.
Sensitive issueWhile supporters online have mounted cyber-protests against Mr Assange’s detention, Saturday’s protests were some of the first street demonstrations in support of Wikileaks.
Wearing face masks associated with the “Anonymous” group of hackers – which launched cyber attacks after Mr Assange’s arrest in the UK – the crowd in Madrid shouted for his freedom, outside the vast glass tower that houses the British embassy
Many of the demonstrators were angry at some of the revelations in the cables, says the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford in Madrid.
These include the suggestion Spain came under pressure to stop a criminal investigation into the killing of Jose Couso, a Spanish cameraman who died when American soldiers fired a tank round into his hotel in Baghdad.
The Free Wikileaks website, which organised the demonstrations, said protests were also planned for other Spanish cities, including Barcelona, Valencia and Seville.
It called for the restoration of Wikileaks’ internet domain, which was cut off by Amazon after it began publishing the diplomatic cables two weeks ago.
And it demanded that Visa and MasterCard restore credit card services because, it said, no one had proven Mr Assange’s guilt.
Our correspondent says the issue of freedom of speech is sensitive for Spaniards, who only emerged from four decades of authoritarian rule in the 1970s.
HE was the rumpled lawyer defending Dr Mahomed Haneef against spurious terrorism charges, and now Peter Russo is leaping to the aid of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
The Brisbane solicitor will join a rally in Brisbane on Friday in support of Mr Assange, the Australian citizen blamed for publishing details from 250,000 leaked US diplomatic cables on his WikiLeaks website.
Mr Assange is in custody in Britain after he surrendered to an Interpol warrant accusing him of sex crimes in Sweden.
His supporters claim the charges are trumped up and designed to silence him.
Mr Russo shot to fame for his defence of Dr Mahomed, when he was accused of links to terrorist bombers in the United Kingdom.
He will be joined by former Australian Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett at the midday protest on Friday at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade office in Brisbane.
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Mr Bartlett stood for the Greens at the last federal election.
Rally organisers from the Brisbane Activist Centre said the protest was timed for International Human Rights Day, claiming the Australian government had failed to uphold Mr Assange’s rights.
Another rally in support of the WikiLeaks editor has been called for tomorrow from 5.30pm (AEST) to 8.30pm in Brisbane Square at the top of the Queen St Mall.
Jessica Payne, a member of Socialist Alternative who is organising Thursday’s rally, said the Australian government must not join the chorus of world leaders “demanding Mr Assange’s head on a plate”.
“His crime is simply that he has published the comments and thoughts of some of the most powerful people in the world,” she said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Even the prime minister could not come up with a charge against Assange.
“This is an attack on freedom of speech and us as citizens, our right to know what our rulers and elected representatives are up to.”
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has argued the “foundation stone” of the WikiLeaks website is “illegal”.
Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd on Wednesday said any legal action taken in Australia against Mr Assange would not be driven by political motives and said he was receiving due consular assistance in Britain.
Mr Rudd has sought to draw a line between the sex charges Mr Assange is facing and the WikiLeaks website.
He said the Swedish charges went “to a different range of matters” from anything WikiLeaks had done.
Julian Assange arriving at Westminster magistrates court. The WikiLeaks founder’s request for bail was denied. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
The WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, who is wanted in Sweden over claims he sexually assaulted two women, was in Wandsworth prison tonight after a judge refused him bail at an extradition hearing in London.
The 39-year-old Australian, who denies the allegations, was driven away in a white prison van after an extraordinary one-hour hearing at City of Westminster magistrates court. The district judge, Howard Riddle, ruled there was a risk Assange would fail to surrender if granted bail.
Despite Jemima Khan, former wife of Pakistan cricketer Imran Khan, the campaigning journalist John Pilger, the British film director Ken Loach and others offering to stand surety totalling £180,000, the judge said Assange’s “weak community ties” in the UK, and his “means and ability” to abscond, were “substantial grounds” for refusing bail.
He was remanded until 14 December, when the case can be reviewed at the same court. His legal team said he would again apply for bail at that hearing.
The move against Assange came on a day when increasing pressure was brought to bear in the US on companies and organisations with ties to WikiLeaks.
As Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, urged businesses to sever their ties with the website, Visa suspended all donations through its credit card.
Asked about the New York Times’s role in publishing the leaked cables, Lieberman told Fox news the newspaper “has committed at least an act of bad citizenship. Whether they have committed a crime I think bears very intensive inquiry”.
Assange, wearing a black suit and open-necked white shirt, stood in the glass-panelled dock as more than 50 journalists from around the world packed into the well and more than 20 supporters and friends crammed into the public gallery. Outside, the pavement was swallowed up as more photographers and camera crew jostled with angry protesters gathered at the building’s main entrance.
After the ruling – with supporters waving A4 printouts reading “Character Assassination” and “Protect Free Speech” – his solicitor, Mark Stephens, emerged on to the court’s steps to claim the prosecution was “politically motivated” and pledged that WikiLeaks would not be cowed. Assange was entitled to a high court appeal, he said, adding the judge was “impressed” with the number of people prepared to “stand up” on his client’s behalf. “[Those supporters] were but the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “This is going to go viral. Many people believe Mr Assange to be innocent, myself included. Many people believe that this prosecution is politically motivated.”
Pilger, who told the judge he did know Assange and had “very high regard for him”, said outside court: “Sweden should be ashamed. This is not justice – this is outrageous.”
Assange was arrested by appointment at a London police station at 9.20am after a European arrest warrant was received by the Metropolitan police extradition unit yesterday. He appeared in court at 2pm, where he spoke to confirm his name and date of birth and to tell the court: “I do not consent to my extradition.”
There was confusion when he initially refused to give an address except a Post Office box number. When told this was unacceptable, his lawyer, John Jones, read out an address at 177 Grantham Street, Parkville, Victoria, Australia. Assange is wanted in connection with four allegations including of rape and molestation.
Gemma Lindfield, for the Swedish prosecutors, said the first involved complainant A, who said she was the victim of “unlawful coercion” on the night of 14 August in Stockholm. The court heard Assange is accused of using his body weight to hold her down in a sexual manner.
The second charge alleged Assange “sexually molested” Miss A by having sex with her without a condom when it was her “express wish” one should be used.
The third charge claimed Assange “deliberately molested” Miss A on 18 August “in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity”. The fourth charge accused Assange of having sex with a second woman, Miss W, on 17 August without a condom while she was asleep at her Stockholm home.
Lindfield argued there was a “high risk of flight” because of Assange’s “lifestyle, connections and potential assets”.
He had access to funds, through PayPal donations to the WikiLeaks website, had a “network of international contacts”, lived a “nomadic” lifestyle, and spent his time in “hiding”, she said. The court later heard that for the past three weeks he had been staying at a UK address, and before then had spent two months living at the Frontline media club in Paddington.
There was no record of him entering the UK in the first place. He had displayed an unwillingness to co-operate, refusing to be photographed, fingerprinted or give a DNA sample on arrest, she added.
No details were given about the strength of evidence, with Lindfield saying it “is not a factor in relation to bail”. She also opposed bail for reasons of his personal safety, saying if granted “any number of unstable persons could take it upon themselves to cause him serious harm”.
“This is someone, simply put, to whom no conditions, even the most stringent conditions, could be imposed that would ensure he surrendered to the jurisdiction of this court,” she said.
John Jones said the case must be “shorn of all political and media hysteria” associated with WikiLeaks.
Assange was of previous good character, and had voluntarily handed himself in to Kentish Town police station in London. His refusal to be photographed, fingerprinted or give a DNA sample was on legal advice.
He had stayed in Sweden for 40 days after the allegations were made to answer the charges and only left the country after being given “express permission” by the Swedish prosecutor.
Since he had arrived in the UK he had “consistently agreed to talk to the Swedish authorities”. His defence fund had been frozen, and he would also be “instantly recognised” if he tried to leave the country, said Jones.
“He resists extradition as it is disproportionate to extradite someone under these circumstances. There has been every indication that the point of this warrant is to get him back for questioning.”
The judge said the warrant did state it was for prosecution.
Others offering surety were Professor Patricia David, and the lawyer Geoffrey Sheen, president of Union Solidarity International, who both said although they did not know Assange they were concerned about human rights. An unnamed relative of Assange offered £80,000.
But judge Riddle said: “The nature and strength of the evidence is not there, this is normal at this stage in proceedings. What we have here is the serious possible allegations against someone with comparatively weak community ties in this country. He has the means and ability to abscond if he wants to and I am satisfied that there are substantial grounds to believe if I granted him bail he would fail to surrender.”
Downing Street said Assange’s arrest was “a matter for the police” and there had been no ministerial involvement.
A WikiLeaks spokesman, Kristinn Hrafnsson, said it would not stop the release of more secret files. “WikiLeaks is operational. We are continuing on the same track as laid out before. Any development with regards to Julian Assange will not change the plans we have with regards to the releases today and in the coming days.”
Unlike the UK, Swedish rape law is not based on consent but on the aforementioned concept of sexual integrity. There are a number of possible offences against this integrity. Those that involve both penetration and either physical force or a threat of some illegal act, such as violence, are classified as rape. So are assaults on people who are helpless at the time, either as a result of intoxication or severe mental disturbance. The degree of physical force involved need only be very small. It can be enough merely to move the victim’s legs apart, according to Gunilla Berglund, at the Swedish ministry of justice. Rape carries a sentence of between two and six years; aggravated rape a sentence of four to 10 years.
An issue concerning Assange’s lawyers is the lack of bail in Swedish criminal procedure. Suspects are remanded in custody when legal grounds can be made out for their detention – particularly when they are foreigners who are deemed at risk of absconding.
However, there are strict limits on the timescale for bringing a suspect to trial, with a formal charge required within two weeks of being remanded into custody, and trial one week after that.
The Swedish director of public prosecutions, Marianne Ny, dismissed suggestions of a political motive for the rape allegations.