LONDON (Reuters) - A British judge will rule on Thursday whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has angered Washington by publishing secret diplomatic cables, may be freed on bail over alleged sex crimes in Sweden.
High Court Justice Duncan Ouseley must decide whether to confirm or overturn a lower court’s ruling that the 39-year-old Australian could be freed on 200,000 pounds ($317,000) bail, under stringent conditions.
WikiLeaks has provoked U.S. fury by publishing part of a trove of 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, including details of overseas sites that Washington regards as vital to its security.
Within hours of Senior District Judge Howard Riddle’s decision on Tuesday to grant Assange bail, prosecutors gave notice they would appeal, forcing Assange to return to London’s Wandsworth prison where he has been held for more than a week.
“I think the district judge made the right decision. We hope the High Court agrees,” Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange’s lawyers, told Reuters.
Prosecution lawyer Gemma Lindfield argued in court this week that Assange was a “significant flight risk” and that no conditions set by the court could prevent his flight.
Assange is fighting attempts to extradite him to Sweden for questioning over allegations of sexual misconduct made by two female WikiLeaks volunteers, which he denies.
“Mr. Assange is wanted for interrogation as a suspect concerning among other things rape and sexual molestation,” Karin Rosander, a spokeswoman for the Swedish Prosecution Agency, told Reuters in Stockholm.
“It’s an ongoing investigation in Sweden and the prosecutor needs to interrogate him to make a decision on the matter.”
The media, a curious public and Assange supporters, including celebrities such as journalist John Pilger, film director Ken Loach and socialite Jemima Khan, are again expected to pack the courtroom for the hearing, which starts at 1130 GMT.
It is uncertain whether Assange himself will be in court.
Internet activists have targeted websites of organizations they believe have obstructed WikiLeaks, including Visa, MasterCard and the Swedish prosecutor’s office, whose website was out of action for 12 hours on Tuesday night.
“I think the reason why he (Assange) is being persecuted rather than prosecuted is because of what he did by releasing the cables,” human rights activist Bianca Jagger told Sky News.
If the high court grants bail, Assange’s lawyers still face the problem of putting together the 200,000 pounds bail in cash.
Only half had been raised by Wednesday, one of his British lawyers said.
A hearing on the Swedish attempt to extradite Assange is expected in early February.
Bail conditions set by Riddle stipulate that Assange must stay at a country house in eastern England owned by a supporter, report to police daily and wear an electronic tag.
Assange and his lawyers have voiced fears that U.S. prosecutors may be preparing to indict him for espionage over WikiLeaks’ publication of the documents.
Legal experts say that, in the event that the United States did prosecute him, it would be easier to extradite him from Britain — which has a fast-track extradition treaty with Washington — than from Sweden.
If Assange was extradited to Sweden on the sex crime allegations, Sweden could not then extradite him to the United States to face hypothetical charges over the leak of classified information without getting Britain’s permission, Geoff Gilbert, a law professor at the University of Essex, told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Mia Shanley in Stockholm; Editing by David Stamp