WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange fears he will be extradited to US

WIKILEAKS founder Julian Assange said it was “increasingly likely” the US would try to extradite him on charges related to leaked cables as he savoured his first day on bail.

Mr Assange said he was concerned about potential moves from US authorities.

“The big risk, the risk we have always been concerned about, is onwards extradition to the United States. And that seems to be increasingly serious and increasingly likely,” the Australian said.

The 39-year-old founder of the whistle-blowing website is fighting extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over allegations that he sexually assaulted two women, which he denies.

But Mr Assange said his lawyers believed a secret US grand jury investigation had been started into his role in WikiLeaks’ release of thousands of leaked US diplomatic cables – a probe he condemned as “illegal”.

Looking relaxed, he said the mansion was a “big improvement” on the London jail where he was held in solitary confinement for nine days before his release on bail Thursday.

Media reports suggest that US prosecutors are trying to build a case against Assange on the grounds that he encouraged a US soldier, Bradley Manning, to steal US cables from a government computer and pass them to WikiLeaks.

“I would say that there is a very aggressive investigation, that a lot of face has been lost by some people, and some people have careers to make by pursuing famous cases,” Mr Assange said.

The renewed push to snare Assange comes as Prime Minister Julia Gillard admitted the WikiLeaks founder had not breached Australian law in the leaking of US diplomatic documents on the website.

The admission was an embarrassing backflip from Ms Gillard, who last month condemned the publishing of embarrassing US cables as “an illegal thing to do”.

Yesterday, she stood by those comments and branded WikiLeaks as being “grossly irresponsible”. “I know there are a number of people who are fans of WikiLeaks,” Ms Gillard said.

“Let me make it very, very clear – I am not. The release of all of this documentation has been grossly irresponsible.”

Meanwhile Manning, who spent his 24th birthday behind bars yesterday, has already served more than four months jail since being charged with disseminating a US military video showing a US helicopter attack that killed 17 people in Iraq, including two Reuters employees.

He is also suspected of leaking military logs about other incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan and more than 250,000 diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, which has created a diplomatic nightmare for the US Government, and he faces 52 years in jail if convicted.

However in reports yesterday, authorities were hoping to enter a plea bargain with Manning whose health is said to be declining in jail, if he names Assange as a co-conspirator. After securing his release from custody in the UK yesterday Assange said he feared he may have already been indicted in the US for espionage.

Arriving at the mansion home of journalist Vaughan Smith in Suffolk, Assange said he considered rumours of US legal action as “extremely serious”.

“We have heard today from one of my US lawyers that there may be a US indictment for espionage for me coming from a secret grand jury investigation,” he said.

The US Justice Department has refused to comment on any grand jury activity.

US prosecutors would be able to form a much stronger case if Manning gave evidence that Assange had encouraged and helped him disseminate classified material.

Adrian Lamo, the former hacker who turned Manning over to the Government after the soldier bragged to him about his role in the leaks, is thought to have told the FBI that Assange had spoken to the soldier over an encrypted internet service while he was downloading government files.

Manning’s supporters have maintained he is not co-operating with authorities.

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