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WikiLeaks Founder Is Released on Bail

LONDON — Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, was released from jail on $315,000 bail on Thursday, and he vowed in a defiant speech to continue to release classified documents and to fight extradition to Sweden for questioning about accusations of sexual offenses.

After nine days in Wandsworth Prison, Mr. Assange emerged into an explosion of photographers’ flashbulbs and spotlights under the grand arch of the Royal Courts of Justice. “Well, it’s great to feel the fresh air of London again,” he told a cheering crowd.

He closed his brief statement by saying, “I hope to continue my work and continue protesting my innocence in this matter.”

Mr. Assange, looking weary in the dark blue suit and white shirt he has worn through three court appearances over 10 days, left London on Thursday night for Ellingham Hall, a lavish country estate in eastern England, where under the bail conditions he must spend every night and submit to extensive monitoring.

He surrendered to the British authorities on Dec. 7 and was denied bail and sent to jail after a judge reviewing a Swedish extradition request found him to be a flight risk. Mr. Assange described the conditions he encountered in jail as “solitary confinement in the bottom of a Victorian prison,” and his imprisonment appeared to have enhanced his status as a countercultural icon among supporters of his Web site.

Black-and-white photos of Mr. Assange, altered to resemble the image of Che Guevara, are pasted across London. They also appear on placards waved by his supporters.

“Someone is finally fighting the governments,” said Angel Spasov, 30, who was balanced precariously on a crowd-control barrier to catch a glimpse of Mr. Assange outside the courtroom. “He’s exposing their secrets,” he said of a series of releases of confidential American military and diplomatic documents by the WikiLeaks Web site this year. “He’s the man.”

Although the Obama administration has indicated that it is considering whether to bring criminal charges against Mr. Assange for releasing classified documents, Swedish prosecutors maintain that the sexual accusations against him are unrelated to the disclosures. Two women have told Swedish prosecutors that consensual relations with Mr. Assange in Sweden turned nonconsensual, and the prosecutors have characterized the encounters as rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion under Swedish law.

Mr. Assange has said repeatedly that he is innocent of any wrongdoing.

The High Court justice Duncan Ouseley on Thursday rejected the Swedish government’s request that bail be denied, but he imposed restrictive conditions on Mr. Assange. Justice Ouseley said Mr. Assange must wear an electronic tag, abide by a curfew and meet daily with the police.

He will also be restricted to a small area around the 10-bedroom mansion, Ellingham Hall, which is owned by Vaughan Smith, the wealthy founder of a journalists’ club in London. A previous ruling would have allowed Mr. Assange to roam the estate’s expansive grounds with, as Geoffrey Robertson, one of his lawyers, joked, “gamekeepers looking out for him.”

Mr. Assange’s passport was seized when he was arrested last week and it has not been returned.

Though he won his freedom, Mr. Assange’s growing myth — a reputation among supporters, at least, as the Robin Hood of secrets — did not act in his favor during the two-hour court hearing.

Gemma Lindfield, who was representing the Swedish government, urged the court to separate the contentions over the WikiLeaks releases from the sexual accusations. Ms. Lindfield argued that a series of well-known people who have stepped up to support Mr. Assange, including the film directors Ken Loach and Michael Moore and Jemima Khan, a socialite, “do not have a close relationship” with him. Their promises of bail money and other guarantees, she said, were made to support WikiLeaks and were not related to the Swedish accusations.

Justice Ouseley said that Mr. Assange’s supporters might see “absconding as a righteous and justifiable act” if it meant that the work of disclosing secret information could continue. In granting bail he stipulated that two of Mr. Assange’s closest WikiLeaks associates, Joseph Farrell and Sarah Harrison, were required to add financial guarantees to those from the prominent people who had vouched for Mr. Assange.

Outside the court on Thursday, Mr. Assange said that his time in jail had led him to reflect on the cruelty of solitary confinement. In court, he sat impassively through the hearing and did not react when the judge ordered his release.

Mark Stephens, another of his lawyers, said he was “delighted and thrilled” at the decision. But he also returned to a theme that he has often raised in fighting the extradition attempts, saying that the challenge to Mr. Assange’s bail application “evidences part of the continuing vendetta on the part of the Swedes against Julian Assange.”

Mr. Assange has called the accusations of sexual misconduct a “smear campaign.”

“I don’t have too many fears about being extradited to Sweden,” he said Thursday. “There are much bigger concerns about being extradited to the United States.”

His lawyers have suggested that the Swedish case is part of a political conspiracy to silence WikiLeaks. Mr. Stephens said this week in a television interview that the sexual accusations were “nothing more than a holding charge” to make Mr. Assange available to the United States, should prosecutors seek his indictment and extradition for the public disclosure of confidential American diplomatic and military cables.

Mr. Robertson told the court this week that Mr. Assange had denied any sexual wrongdoing “fully, firmly and convincingly” in an interview with the Swedish authorities on Aug. 30.

“If he is so keen to clear his name,” Justice Ouseley said during the hearing on Thursday, “what stops a voluntary return to Sweden?”

Mr. Robertson responded that his client “had a right” to appeal. Later, walking through falling snow on a cold London evening, Mr. Assange was more direct about defying the Swedish prosecutors. “I have enough anger to last me 100 years,” he said. “But I will channel that into my work.”

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris, and J. David Goodman from New York.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 16, 2010

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the High Court judge who rejected an appeal challenging the granting of bail to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder. He is Judge Duncan Ouseley, not Ounsley.

(source)

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