Julian Assange gets almost a year in UK prison for skipping bail
Julian Assange has been sentenced to just under a year in a UK prison on Wednesday after he was found guilty of violating his bail conditions when he entered Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden in 2012.
“You had a choice and the course of action you chose was to commit an offense,” Judge Deborah Taylor said. “You have not surrendered willingly. Had the government of Ecuador not permitted entry to the embassy, you would not have voluntarily come before the court,” she added, before handing down an “imprisonment of 50 weeks.”
Assange was wanted in Sweden for questioning over sexual assault and rape allegations. He faces a separate hearing on possible extradition to the United States over a computer hacking conspiracy charge on Thursday.
Judge Taylor said Assange would be eligible for release after serving half the sentence. but that any parole would be “subject to conditions and outcome of any other proceedings” against him.
Reacting to the ruling, Jennifer Robinson, one of the lawyers for the whistleblower, told reporters her client’s case “has always been about the risk of extradition to the United States.”
“We’ve been saying since 2010 that this threat [of extradition] is real. The focus of our energies will now be on fighting that extradition request and that fight starts tomorrow,” she added.
Charges relating to Assange’s bail were formally laid at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on April 11, hours after the 47-year-old’s nearly seven-year sanctuary within Ecuador’s central London embassy came to an abrupt and dramatic end.
The WikiLeaks founder appeared at Southwark Crown Court on Wednesday wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a blazer, with a clipped beard and freshly-cut hair.
The session started later than expected and there were audio issues in the court room. Assange looked stoic and merely nodded at protestors who waved at him and flashed peace signs.
At the start of the hearing, the judge asked Assange if he understood he was being committed for sentencing, to which he replied, “I understand that I am committed,” adding “I don’t know the details.”
In mitigation for the Australian computer programmer, defense lawyer Mark Summers said his client had been living “in overwhelming fear” of potential rendition from Sweden to the US over WikiLeaks disclosures.
“As these threats rained down on him from America, these threats dominated everything as far as the proceedings. They dominated his thoughts,” Summers said before making reference to Guantanamo Bay prison, strip searches and torture.
Summers then read a letter from Assange to the court.
“I apologize … to those who feel I disrespected them. This is not what I wanted or intended,” Assange stated in the prepared letter. “I did what I thought at the time was the best and perhaps only thing I could have done.”
Supporters cried out “shame on you” as the judge delivered her verdict.
US extradition hearing
Separately on Thursday, the WikiLeaks founder will face the first of multiple extradition hearings over a criminal charge in the US. He has been charged with helping former Army intelligence specialist Chelsea Manning obtain access to US Defense Department computers in 2010 in order to reveal secret government documents.
The charge of one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion was kept under seal for over a year until his arrest in London three weeks ago.
Under UK law, the US government has 65 days from arrest — so until June 15 — to provide full extradition papers to a British district judge.
Robinson, one of Assange’s lawyers, 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 weeks since his arrest, Assange has been held on remand at HMP Belmarsh in Thamesmead, southeast London.
One of the most secure facilities in England and Wales, Belmarsh prison has the capacity to hold over 900 inmates and is well known for once housing infamous terror suspects Abu Hamza al-Masri and Anjem Choudary within its high-security unit.
Andy Keen-Downs, chief executive of Pact, a rehabilitation charity that provides family services at prisons across the country, said Belmarsh receives a mixture of inmates who are allocated single or shared cells.
“In the middle of the prison is the area built for high-security prisoners,” Keen-Downs explained.
“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,” he continued.
CNN’s Claudia Rebaza contributed to this report.