A court in Britain has handed down a 50-week jail sentence to Australian whistleblower and press freedom activist Julian Assange, saying he disrespected the UK judicial system and escaped his bail conditions by taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy for almost seven years.
The Southwark Crown Court in the UK capital London issued its sentence on Wednesday against the backdrop of “shame on you” chants by activists and supporters of Assange.
The sitting judge, Deborah Taylor, said in his ruling that Assange had abused his international status as the co-founder of WikiLeaks website to disrespect the judicial system in Britain when he escaped into the Ecuadorian embassy in June 2012.
“You remained there for nearly seven years, exploiting your privileged position to flout the law and advertise internationally your disdain for the law of this country,” said Taylor, adding that Assange’s evacuation from the Ecuadorian embassy on April 11 had cost the British taxpayers some 16 million pounds.
Assange went to the embassy after he was bailed over a case in Sweden where he had been accused by two women of rape and sexual assault in 2010. The activist and his lawyers believed Sweden would extradite him to the United States where he was wanted for trying to access confidential government documents.
Assange’s lawyer told the hearing on Wednesday that although the rape case against him was dropped in Sweden he remained in the Ecuadorian embassy as he feared London could extradite him to the US where he could be transferred to the Guantanamo Bay, a notorious detention center for high-profile terrorists in Cuba.
Mark Summers read a letter by Assange, who was himself present in the hearing in a black jacket and grey sweatshirt, saying the activist had no intention of disrespecting the British judicial system.
“I apologize unreservedly to those who consider that I have disrespected them by the way I have pursued my case. This is not what I wanted or intended,” read the letter, adding, “I found myself struggling with terrifying circumstances for which neither I nor those from whom I sought advice could work out any remedy. I did what I thought at the time was the best.”
Rights campaigners believe Assange’s arrest and prosecution is a direct affront to press freedom, saying it is directly influenced by Washington’s anger about the publishing of hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks.