By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times –
LONDON — The cost of helping WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange fight allegations of sexual assault became painfully real Monday for a group of supporters who were ordered by a British judge to pay money they had pledged for his bail now that he has fled inside the Ecuadorean Embassy.
Nine of the anti-secrecy campaigner’s backers are on the hook for about $150,000 among them because he jumped bail in June by putting himself out of the reach of British police. Assange, 41, sought asylum inside the embassy in central London to evade extradition to Sweden, which wants to question him in connection with allegations that he sexually abused two women last year.
Chief Magistrate Howard Riddle said Monday that the nine supporters had “failed in their basic duty” to ensure that Assange did not abscond.
The group had acknowledged making no attempt to persuade him to give himself up, out of sympathy with his fears that the Swedish investigation was merely a pretext to spirit him to the United States to face possible charges of espionage in connection with WikiLeaks’ release of thousands of classified government files.
Vaughan Smith, at whose country mansion Assange stayed for months under a form of house arrest, told the court that for him and the eight others to urge the now-fugitive to quit the embassy would have been “a very public betrayal.”
Riddle wrote in his judgment that he felt “real respect” for the nine backers’ convictions.
“In declining to publicly (or as far as I know privately) urge Mr. Assange to surrender himself, they have acted against self-interest. They have acted on their beliefs and principles throughout,” Riddle wrote in his judgment. “In what is sometimes considered to be a selfish age, that is admirable.”
But he said the integrity of the bail system needed to be upheld. Moreover, it should have been clear to the nine supporters that Assange, who had vowed to fight extradition tooth and nail, posed a substantial flight risk, Riddle said.
The judge reduced the amount of money to be paid from the originally pledged sum of $224,000 to $150,000, out of recognition of some of the backers’ limited means. The nine include Nobel Prize-winning biologist John Sulston and journalist Phillip Knightley.
Assange’s decision to seek refuge in the embassy, where he has been holed up since June 19, precipitated a diplomatic standoff.
Ecuador has granted Assange asylum, but British officials insist that they are legally bound to hand him over to Sweden. Scotland Yard has promised to arrest him the moment he steps off embassy premises.
Assange, who is an Australian national, was first arrested in London in December 2010 on suspicion of sexually assaulting two women on separate occasions in Stockholm in August of that year. He acknowledges having sex with the women but says it was consensual.
His appeal against extradition has been rejected by both Britain’s High Court and its Supreme Court, the highest judicial authority in the land.