London (AFP) – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Tuesday lost his legal battle to overturn an English arrest warrant against him, and with it his hopes of freely leaving Ecuador’s London embassy, where he has been holed up since 2012.
At Westminster Magistrates Court in the British capital, judge Emma Arbuthnot rejected his lawyers’ argument that upholding the warrant was no longer in the public interest.
“Arrest is a proportionate response even though Mr Assange has restricted his own freedom for a number of years,” she said.
Assange was awaiting extradition to Sweden over a 2010 investigation into claims of rape and sexual assault when he breached his bail conditions to seek refuge in the embassy.
Sweden dropped its investigation last year, but the English warrant for his arrest for jumping bail remains, meaning he would be detained if he stepped outside.
Arbuthnot, England’s chief magistrate, had last week rejected claims by Assange’s lawyers that the warrant for skipping bail was rendered null-and-void because there was no longer any underlying crime.
On Tuesday she dismissed broader claims that continuing to seek his arrest was not in the public interest.
– ‘Considers himself above law’ –
“Mr Assange’s failure to surrender has impeded the course of justice and has led finally to the case being dropped as it cannot be continued unless he returned to Sweden,” the judge said.
“Mr Assange’s failure is a determined attempt to avoid the order of the court.
“He is a man who wants to impose his terms on the course of justice, whether the course of justice is in this jurisdiction or in Sweden. He appears to consider himself above the normal rules of law and wants justice only if it goes in his favour.
“It is certainly not against the public interest to proceed.”
Assange voiced his shock at the ruling.
“We are surprised. The judge went outside what the parties presented in court. This seems to have led to the significant factual errors in the judgement,” the 46-year-old Australian said on Twitter.
The former computer hacker has three months in which to appeal against Arbuthnot’s finding.
Assange says he fears his arrest could lead to his extradition to the United States over WikiLeaks’ publication of secret US military documents and diplomatic cables in 2010.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year said his arrest was a “priority”.
Arbuthnot said there was “no evidence” that he would have been rendered to the United States from Sweden or Britain and if his extradition was sought, he would be able to argue his case in court.
Assange wrote on Twitter before the hearing that his latest legal argument hinged on an alleged “cover-up” by the British government to keep him detained.
– Depression, bad shoulder –
His lawyer Gareth Peirce told reporters after Tuesday’s ruling that the proceedings had raised “serious issues”.
“The history of the case is, from start to finish, so extraordinary. Each aspect of the case becomes puzzling and troubling,” she said.
Ecuador’s foreign ministry said it wants to reach a solution with Britain that satisfies both sides and respects Assange’s human rights.
Westminster Magistrates Court heard how Assange was suffering from a bad tooth, a frozen shoulder and depression.
His lawyers had attempted to argue that he had reasonable grounds to jump bail; that a United Nations panel found his stay in the embassy was arbitrary detention; that skipping bail did not halt the legal proceedings; that his five-and-a-half-year spell in the embassy was akin to any prison sentence for breaching bail.
Arbuthnot dismissed all four points.
Assange only very rarely emerges onto the embassy balcony, citing concerns for his personal safety, but he frequently takes part in media conferences and campaigns via video link.
Ecuador in December granted citizenship to Assange, and asked Britain to recognise him as a diplomat in an unsuccessful attempt to provide him with the immunity that could see him walk free.
But London swiftly rejected the move.