A British judge has sentenced WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange to 50 weeks in jail for hopping bail when he went into hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012.
The decision comes just a day before the first hearing on U.S. authorities’ extradition request for Assange, whom the Justice Department charged last month in a conspiracy to hack into a Pentagon computer system in 2010.
Assange attorney Mark Summers argued in court on Wednesday that the seven years his client spent in the embassy, where he sought asylum from extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges, amounted to a form of imprisonment. Assange apologized for his actions in a letter Summers read before the court.
“I found myself struggling with terrifying circumstances for which neither I nor those from whom I sought advice could work out any remedy,” Assange wrote. “I did what I thought at the time was the best and perhaps the only thing that could be done - which I hoped might lead to a legal resolution being reached between Ecuador and Sweden that would protect me from the worst of my fears.”
But Judge Deborah Taylor rebutted that defense in sentencing Assange, saying that his self-imposed house arrest was “a deliberate attempt to evade or delay justice” on the assault charges.
“It's difficult to envisage a more serious example of this offence,” she added in remarks printed by The Telegraph.
The sentencing comes three weeks after British authorities dragged Assange out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The US Justice Department had indicted him for allegedly helping former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in her attempt to crack a password that would have given her access to classified national security cables. In Thursday’s hearing, likely the first of many, the Trump Administration will seek his extradition to the United States to face the charge, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.
Press freedom advocates have long feared that Assange might be prosecuted for publishing classified information under the 1917 Espionage Act, which the Obama and Trump administrations have used to crack down on national security whistleblowers. But the Justice Department charge sidestepped many of WikiLeaks journalistic attributes, instead focusing on Assange’s alleged hacking.
Although he is set to appear via video link before a judge for extradition hearings tomorrow and June 12, such cases between the U.S. and U.K. often drag out over the course of years.
As Assange was led out of the court on Wednesday, he reportedly raised his fist in a show of solidarity with roughly two dozen WikiLeaks supporters in the room.
Cover: Buildings are reflected in the window as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is taken from court, where he appeared on charges of jumping British bail seven years ago, in London, Wednesday May 1, 2019. Assange has been jailed for 50 weeks for breaching his bail after going into hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)