For a moment WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange could almost sniff the fresh air of freedom from a crowded London courtroom.
But after a British judge granted him bail on Tuesday, the Houdini of cyberspace was banged up again when the Swedish authorities made a last-minute appeal against his release.
Assange, who has no formal charge against him, is wanted for questioning in a sexual coercion case in which two Swedish women allege he forced them into unprotected sex.
But after flashing a triumphant thumbs-up to the packed courtroom, he did not pass go, and his supporters scrambled to collect 200,000 British pounds (about $320,000 Canadian) in cash to free him in the event that Sweden lost.
Instead of spending the next month under surveillance in a lakeside mansion pending a Jan. 11 court hearing, Assange will be behind bars for at least another 48 hours.
Meanwhile rumours of a conspiracy to deliver him to the American courts via extradition to Sweden swirled through the electronic media.
It was one more ingredient in a case that answers the prayers of the tabloids — dirty tricks, dubious sex and a gaggle of high-octane celebrity friends including Bianca Jagger, filmmaker Michael Moore, crusading journalist John Pilger, and designer Jemima Khan, the ex-wife of former cricket star Imran Khan.
For added impact, there was a courtroom appearance by Assange’s mother, who flew to his side from Australia for a glimpse of her wandering son, who has lived on the run for years under false identities while dropping explosive documents on the Internet.
Mark Stephens, a lawyer for Assange, accused Sweden of persecuting his client, calling him an “innocent man sitting in Dickensian conditions,” in dismal Wandsworth jail, where famous World War II traitor “Lord Haw Haw” was hanged. And he called the case a “show trial” in which no expense would be spared to keep Assange behind bars.
But Swedish lawyer Gemma Lindfield said that Assange faced serious allegations, and should be kept under lock and key because he has “the means and ability to abscond.”
Assange, looking wan in a navy suit and open-necked white shirt, accepted the renewed detention impassively. But in a letter delivered to his mother, he said “I remain true to the ideals I have expressed. This circumstance will not shake them.”
Sweden denies any link between the sex case and WikiLeaks’s notorious release of some 2,000 of 250,000 secret U.S. diplomatic cables. They have outraged American politicians and right-wing pundits who have labelled Assange an enemy of the state, while some called for his execution.
But after a week in solitary confinement, it was still unclear whether either Sweden or the U.S. would be able to put him in the dock. And the odds on Washington bringing him to trial appear slim.
“They must prove he conspired with someone in the U.S. to disclose classified information,” said constitutional law professor Jack Balkin of Yale University. “Then he could be prosecuted for conspiracy. But there’s a question of the extent to which U.S. law applies extraterritorially.”
There are persistent rumours of a “secret” grand jury empanelled to indict Assange on American criminal charges.
But says Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, “where’s the logic in that? They have secret grand juries when they’re dealing with mob bosses, but it would hardly apply to Assange.”
In legal terms, he added, “the big problem is that the Justice Department, in seeking to prosecute Assange, is actually prosecuting investigative journalism. There’s no logical way to differentiate what WikiLeaks has done, and what other media organizations that have worked with them have done with the same information. Legally there’s no daylight between them.”
Cases against major U.S. media are radioactive in U.S. courts, Warren points out. And the batting average of prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act is about zero.
“If the U.S. is following the law it’s a virtual impossibility that Assange would be prosecuted,” he added. “If it’s putting politics above the law, anything is possible.”