Julian Assange has been sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for breaching bail and spending seven years holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
The Wikileaks founder took refuge in the building in 2012 to avoid extradition from the UK to Sweden where he faced allegations of sexual assault.
Sentencing at a packed Southwark Crown Court, Judge Deborah Taylor said: “You remained there…exploiting your privileged position to flout the law and advertise internationally your disdain for the law of this country.”
Assange now faces a separate hearing on Thursday to decide if he can be extradited to the US where he is accused of orchestrating one of the largest ever leaks of government secrets.
The sentencing hearing on Wednesday heard how the 47-year-old Australian had remained living in Ecuador’s embassy – out of reach of British police – until his asylum was withdrawn last month and officers were invited in to arrest him.
In a letter read out to court, Assange apologised to “those who consider that I have disrespected them by the way that I have pursued my case”.
He added: “This is not what I wanted or intended. I found myself struggling with terrifying circumstances for which neither I nor those from whom I sought advice could work out any remedy. I did what I thought at the time was the best.”
Mark Summers QC, for Assange, said the secret-spiller had only gone on the run because he believed he may end up at America’s infamous prison camp Guantanamo Bay.
“The fear was [of] onward removal from Sweden to America and even Guantanamo Bay,” said Mr Summers.
He added: “[There were] suggestions from inside the US administration that he could be kidnapped wherever he was with or without the approval of the country in which he was residing and brought forcibly to the US. That is no less than the threat of a rendition.”
But Judge Taylor dismissed the claim and said it was difficult to imagine a more serious example of a breach of bail case.
“By hiding in the embassy you deliberately put yourself out of reach, while remaining in the UK,” she said, adding he had cost the British taxpayer £16m.
He entered Ecuador’s London embassy in 2012, lauded by some as a charismatic defender of truth and journalistic collaborator, fleeing what he claimed were the crosshairs of the United States.
Cut to almost seven years on, the extraordinary scenes of a dishevelled Julian Assange dragged from his diplomatic sanctuary exposed the damaging impact of his time in self-imposed exile.
The 47-year-old WikiLeaks founder put his legal problems on hold during the 2,488 days he spent in the Ecuadorian Embassy. And now he’s out, they are more complicated than ever.
Where is he now?
Following his abrupt eviction from Ecuador’s tiny embassy in Knightsbridge two weeks ago, UK authorities sent Assange to Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh — one of the most secure facilities in England and Wales.
The prison in Thamesmead, southeast London, has the capacity to hold more than 900 inmates. Within the facility, there are four main residential blocks as well as a high-security unit — known for previously housing some of Britain’s most notorious terror suspects including Abu Hamza al–Masriand Anjem Choudary.
Andy Keen-Downs, chief executive of Pact, a rehabilitation charity that provides family services at prisons across the country, described Belmarsh as an “intimidating” facility.
“Like most prisons, conditions in Belmarsh are austere,” Keen-Downs told CNN. “Conditions are very basic. Prison staff work hard to keep prisoners safe, but like most prisons there are occasions when there could be violence. It could be a very intimidating atmosphere.
“During the night, the atmosphere could be very daunting with a lot of noise,” he explained.
Separate hearing will decide if Wikileaks founder is to be extradited to the US where he is accused of helping orchestrate one of the largest ever leaks of government secrets
As it stands, there is officially one provisional extradition request for Assange — from the US.
Extradition requests to the UK from outside the EU are governed by Part 2 of the Extradition Act 2003. Once an extradition hearing has been set, it will not be for the UK courts to determine culpability. A judge would only determine whether the US request satisfies the “dual criminality” legal requirement — meaning that the alleged crime is illegal in both countries. The judge would also consider if granting extradition would breach his human rights.
If satisfied that the claim meets procedural conditions, the case would be sent to the Home Secretary for a final decision on ordering the extradition.
UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid told members of parliament on April 11 that UK law dictates that the US has up to 65 days to send full extradition papers to the judge.
In the meantime, Assange is scheduled to appear via videolink from Belmarsh before a judge at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on May 2 over his possible extradition — which could take years to decide.
Jennifer Robinson, one of the lawyers on Assange’s legal team told CNN on Saturday: “It is a matter of international concern that a publisher is being held in a high security prison facing extradition to the US for his work that has won journalism awards the world over. We are very concerned about his health.”
Robinson added, “He is grateful for the solidarity shown around the world.”
In the event that Sweden chooses to continue legal procedures, it could refile a European Arrest Warrant (EAW). Sweden previously issued a warrant for Assange’s arrest in 2010, which he said forced him to seek protection from Ecuador years later.
Valid across the European Union since 2004, the EAW was designed to speed up lengthy extradition operations and allows EU members to ask for the arrest and surrender of criminals in other member states.