LONDON — A British judge sent Julian Assange to jail Tuesday, denying bail to the WikiLeaks founder after he vowed to fight efforts to be extradited to Sweden in a sex-crimes investigation.
Despite Assange’s legal troubles, a WikiLeaks spokesman insisted the flow of secret U.S. diplomatic cables would not be affected. He also downplayed efforts to constrict the group’s finances after both Visa and MasterCard cut off key funding methods Tuesday.
“This will not change our operation,” spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told The Associated Press. As if to underline the point, WikiLeaks released a dozen new diplomatic cables, its first publication in more than 24 hours, including the details of a NATO defence plan for Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that prompted an indignant response from the Russian envoy to the alliance.
Assange turned himself in to Scotland Yard on Tuesday morning, and was sent to the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court in the early afternoon. He showed no reaction as Judge Howard Riddle denied him bail and sent him to jail until his next extradition hearing on Dec. 14.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, visiting Afghanistan, was pleased to hear that Assange had been arrested.
“That sounds like good news to me,” he said Tuesday.
Riddle asked the 39-year-old Australian whether he understood that he could agree to be extradited to Sweden. Assange, dressed in a navy blue suit, cleared his throat and said: “I understand that and I do not consent.”
The judge said he had grounds to believe that the former computer hacker — a self-described homeless refugee — might not show up to his next hearing if he were granted bail.
Arguments during the hour-long hearing detailed the sex accusations against Assange, all of which he has denied.
Lawyer Gemma Lindfield, acting on behalf of the Swedish authorities, outlined one allegation of rape, two allegations of molestation and one of unlawful coercion stemming from Assange’s separate sexual encounters in August with two women in Sweden.
Lindfield said one woman accused Assange of pinning her down and refusing to use a condom on the night of Aug. 14 in Stockholm. That woman also accused of Assange of molesting her in a way “designed to violate her sexual integrity” several days later.
A second woman accused Assange of having sex with her without a condom while she was asleep at her Stockholm home.
Assange’s lawyers have claimed the accusations stem from a “dispute over consensual but unprotected sex” and say the women only made the claims after finding out about each other’s relationships with Assange. WikiLeaks lawyer Mark Stephens says the case has taken on political overtones — a claim Swedish officials have rejected.
Legally, there is a good chance Assange will be heading to Sweden. Experts say European arrest warrants like the one issued by Sweden can be tough to beat, barring mental or physical incapacity. Even if the warrant were defeated on a technicality, Sweden could simply issue a new one.
Assange’s Swedish lawyer Bjorn Hurtig said it was difficult to say how long the extradition process in Britain would take, but it could be anywhere from a week to two months.
It was not publicly known where Assange was being held, since British police never reveal that for privacy and security reasons. Some prisoners occasionally get Internet access, although only under close monitoring.
Meanwhile, Stephens said he would reapply for bail, noting that several prominent Britons — including socialite Jemima Khan and filmmaker Ken Loach — had each offered to pay 20,000 pounds (US$31,500) as surety so Assange could go free.
WikiLeaks, meanwhile, came under increasing financial pressure Tuesday. Collecting individual donations — the mainstay of its operations — became more difficult after credit card companies said they would refuse to process donations to the site.
Visa Inc. said it would “suspend Visa payment acceptance on WikiLeaks’ website pending further investigation into the nature of its business and whether it contravenes Visa operating rules.” MasterCard said it would suspend payments “until the situation is resolved.”
PayPal Inc., a popular online payment service, has already cut its links to the website, while Swiss authorities closed Assange’s new Swiss bank account on Monday, freezing tens of thousands of euros, according to his lawyers.
WikiLeaks is still soliciting donations through bank transfers to affiliates in Iceland and Germany, as well as by mail to an address at University of Melbourne in Australia.
As WikiLeaks has come under legal, financial and technological attack, an online army of supporters has come to its aid, sending donations, fighting off computer attacks and setting up over 500 mirror sites around the world to make sure that the secret documents are published regardless of what happens to the organization.
Hrafnsson, the WikiLeaks spokesman, said the group had no plans yet to carry through on its threat to release the key to a heavily encrypted version of some of the most sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables — an “insurance” file that has been distributed to supporters and news media in case of an emergency.
Beginning in July, WikiLeaks angered the U.S. government by releasing tens of thousands of secret U.S. military documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last week, it began a rolling release of what WikiLeaks says are a quarter-million cables from U.S. diplomatic posts around the world. The group provided those documents to five major newspapers, which have been working with WikiLeaks to edit the cables for publication, and has been sharing subsets of the cache with other publications in recent days.
The U.S. government has launched a criminal investigation, saying the group has jeopardized U.S. national security and diplomatic efforts around the world.