Celebrities, activists risk losing Assange bail money

(Reuters) – WASHINGTON: The founder of Wikileaks knows how to keep a secret. Two days before claiming asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, Julian Assange partied with some of his most famous and well-heeled supporters. He did not mention that, in order to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual-assault charges, he was about to potentially forfeit the bail money they had posted.

Among the well-known figures who stand to lose some or all of whatever they pledged for Assange’s bail are London socialite Jemima Khan, British film director Ken Loach and the US filmmaker Michael Moore.

Most of Assange’s supporters did not respond to requests for comment, but author Philip Knightley said he was standing by his fellow Australian. “I’d do it again,” Knightley said, calling Assange a “victim of flawed British and Swedish justice systems.”

Assange, who had exhausted his appeals against extradition in the British court system, walked into Ecuador’s embassy in London on Tuesday and requested political asylum.

Representatives of Scotland Yard and the British court system said that as a result, Assange violated bail terms which required him to abide by a court-imposed daily curfew requiring him to return to the address of a supporter near London.

The bail terms were imposed by British courts in December 2010 to allow Assange’s release from a London prison where he had been held pending resolution of a request from Swedish authorities for his extradition for questioning in a sexual misconduct case.

The controversial Assange still has strong support in some quarters, and his bail fund had amassed 240,000 British pounds, or about US$376,000.

One long-time Assange supporter, who asked for anonymity when discussing details of the case, told Reuters that Assange attended a party on Sunday night with supporters, including some of the people who had contributed to his bail fund.

‘A long goodbye’

During the course of the party, the supporter said, Assange did not even hint that he was contemplating an attempt to avoid extradition by asking Ecuador for asylum.

Tariq Ali, a British writer and political activist, said he was invited to the party but couldn’t attend. The day before, Ali said, he “had a long chat” on the phone with Assange “which, now that I reflect on it, was a long goodbye.”

An official spokesman for WikiLeaks and Assange did not respond to voice and text messages requesting comment.

A second Assange sympathiser said he believed that one or two of Assange’s wealthiest supporters had handed over tens of thousands of pounds in bail money to the British courts.

Knightley, an Australian author of investigative books about espionage, said he had not put up any cash but had pledged to pay out 20,000 pounds in the event Assange breached his court-imposed bail terms – funds he acknowledged he might now have to come up with.

Vaughan Smith, a former combat cameraman who provided Assange with court-approved accommodations at his country mansion for several months last year after Assange’s release on bail, said that, like Knightley, he pledged, but did not hand over, 20,000 pounds for Assange’s bail which he might now have surrender to authorities.

But Smith added: “Despite the risk to my pocket, I’m still supporting him.”

A representative of the British court system said that the courts would make no immediate move to confiscate the bail money put up by Assange’s supporters and call in unpaid pledges. Any order to declare the bail money forfeited, the court official said, would have to be issued by a judge.

A legal source close to the Assange case said that the bail guarantors’ money was definitely at risk although it was possible that the financial backers could get some or even all of their money back. If Assange is granted asylum in Ecuador, the source said, this might make it legally impossible for Britain to confiscate the bail money.