UK judge rejects Assange's fresh plea against arrest
London: In a huge setback to Julian Assange, a British court on Tuesday for the second time ruled that a UK arrest warrant against the Wikileaks founder was still valid, making it clear that he could be arrested if he tries to leave the Ecuadorian embassy where he has been holed up since 2012.
Senior District Judge Emma Arbuthnot, handing down her judgement before a packed courtroom at Westminster magistrates court, said that she was not persuaded by the argument from Assange's legal team that it was not in the public interest to pursue him for skipping bail.
"I find arrest is a proportionate response even though Mr Assange has restricted his own freedom for a number of years," Judge Arbuthnot said.
The judge said: "Defendants on bail up and down the country, and requested persons facing extradition, come to court to face the consequences of their own choices. He should have the courage to do the same. It is certainly not against the public interest to proceed".
Assange, 46, skipped bail to enter the Ecuadorian embassy here in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault and rape, which he denies.
Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot, the judge who is currently also presiding over the extradition trial of liquor tycoon Vijay Mallya, the next hearing date for which is expected in mid-March, had reserved her judgement in the Assange case last month.
Though Swedish prosecutors dropped the investigation against Assange, he faces arrest if he leaves the building in Knightsbridge, London, for breaching his former bail conditions in the UK.
Lawyers for Assange had asked for the warrant to be withdrawn since Sweden no longer wants him extradited, but the judge rejected their request last week.
Representing Assange, Mark Summers QC went on to argue that arresting him was no longer proportionate or in the public interest.
Summers said the years Assange has spent inside the embassy were "adequate, if not severe" punishment for his actions, and cited a report by a UN committee which said Assange was being arbitrarily detained.
He also argued that Assange was justified in seeking refuge in the embassy because he had a legitimate fear that US authorities were seeking to arrest him for WikiLeaks' publication of secret documents.
Assange's legal team have previously argued as proceedings in Sweden over rape allegations have now been dropped, the British arrest warrant had lost its purpose. Last month, Assange was given Ecuadorian citizenship as another ring of protection for the Wikileaks chief. He is expected to leave for the South American country once he is allowed to step out of the embassy.
Another route to secure his exit from the embassy under the garb of diplomatic immunity was also lost when he was denied diplomatic status by the UK government.
Assange, an Australian national, has previously expressed concern that if he leaves the Ecuadorian embassy in London he could end up being extradited to the US, where he fears facing the death penalty over allegations of revealing government secrets through WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks is an international non-profit journalistic organisation that publishes secret information, news leaks and classified media from anonymous sources.