His supporters include teenage hackers, freedom of speech activists and a motley group of celebrities. But on Tuesday it was the maverick British establishment that rode to the rescue of Julian Assange, offering to whisk him from dull confinement in Wandsworth jail to a large and comfy manor house in Suffolk, eastern England.
For once, Mr. Assange was not the star at the afternoon bail hearing at Westminster magistrates’ court. Dressed in a white shirt and blue suit, he watched the proceedings impassively. Instead the hero was Vaughan Smith, a former army officer, journalist adventurer and rightwing libertarian. For much of the past five months, until his arrest last week, Mr. Assange has been living at Smith’s Frontline Club in Paddington, west London.
Standing to address district judge Howard Riddle, Geoffrey Robertson QC announced that “Captain Smith” was now ready to put Mr. Assange up at his rambling country home, Ellingham Hall, near Bungay in Suffolk — that is, should he be granted bail. The WikiLeaks saga has so far been short of jokes. But Robertson had one ready-made.
It would not be so much “house arrest as manor arrest”, he quipped. Not only that, but it was inconceivable Mr. Assange would attempt to escape “since darkness descends rather early in that part of Britain”. Additionally, Mr. Assange was willing to give up his Australian passport and wear an electronic tag. Finally, he wasn’t likely to get very far given that “media exposure” had made him “well-known around the world”, Robertson said with understatement.
Last week Mr. Assange was refused bail after he unwisely gave an Australian postal address as his place of residence. This time his legal team would allow no such mistake.
Robertson, Mr. Assange’s new barrister, asked Smith to give his own assessment of WikiLeaks’ controversial founder, in the light of Sweden’s attempts to have him extradited on sex allegations.
“He is a very honourable person, hugely clever, self-deprecatory and warm. Not the kind of things you read about,” Smith said loyally. But the clincher came when Robertson asked Smith to explain what precisely Assange’s new rustic home would look like. After establishing that Smith was a former Guards officer and one-time captain of the British army’s shooting team, the QC asked for details of Smith’s family home and organic farm. “It has 10 bedrooms and 600 acres (240 hectares),” Smith replied. Better still, there was even a police station. “It’s a short distance on a bicycle. I can cycle it in about 15 minutes,” Smith explained. “It’s about a mile. Perhaps a little bit more.” Smith added helpfully: “It’s an environment where he would be surrounded. We have members of staff. My parents live in proximity as well. My father was a Queen’s Messenger and a colonel in the Grenadier Guards.”
On the second floor of the court several celebrity supporters had gathered outside next to the coffee machine and green metal benches — John Pilger, Jemima Khan, Ken Loach, Bianca Jagger, and others. But it turned out they weren’t really needed — though their money was. Outside on the pavement, a polyglot scrum of journalists waited impatiently for news.
Judging from his appearance, Mr. Assange appeared to be surviving his ordeal in Wandsworth prison pretty well. From inside a glass box for the defendant, he confirmed his identity and address. He also gave a cheery thumbs-up to his team.
Robertson, however, made clear that Mr. Assange was having a miserable time of it. His conditions inside Wandsworth were nothing short of living hell, he suggested. “He can’t read any newspapers other than the Daily Express. This is the kind of Victorian situation he finds himself in,” Robertson lamented. He went on: “Time magazine sent him a magazine with his picture on the cover but all the person would allow him to have was the envelope!” To no one’s great surprise, the judge announced that “bail was going to be granted under certain conditions”. These turned out to be not overly onerous: an electronic tag, an afternoon and night curfew and a requirement to report to Bungay police station between 6-8 p.m. every evening. Oh, and GBP200,000 in cash.
Mr. Assange’s lawyers asked if it might be possible to hand cheques into the court instead? The magistrate was unimpressed, insisting in these financially troubled times it had to be money up front.
Outside, the tweeted news of Mr. Assange’s bail brought a loud cheer from the 150 or so people who had gathered opposite the court to cheer on their hero and share their banners and placards with the world.
Soon afterwards, however, there was confusion as news filtered through that the Swedish prosecutor was to appeal against the bail decision, meaning that Mr. Assange has to remain for the time being in jail. But his lawyers appear confident he will be out in time for Christmas.
Pheasant dinners, port and brisk walks around the estate may be only a matter of days away.
Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010