The 39-year-old Australian appeared at the City of Westminster Magistrates' Court in the heart of London soon after surrendering at a police station this morning.
Six WikiLeaks' supporters -- including film director Ken Loach and veteran war journalist John Pilger -- offered to guarantee Assange's bail of $150,000. However, the judge refused bail and ordered the WikiLeaks founder held until Dec. 14 on the grounds that he might fail to surrender for his next court appearance and had the financial means to flee Britain.
However, Assange's major sources of funding have slowly dried up since his organization began releasing hundreds of U.S. diplomatic cables -- a leak known as Cablegate -- nine days ago. The Visa Europe credit card company today suspended transfers to WikiLeaks "pending further investigation into the nature of its business and whether it contravenes Visa operating rules." Swiss authorities on Monday froze Assange's bank account, reported to contain about $41,000, after claiming he had provided false personal information. MasterCard also blocked transfers to WikiLeaks on Monday, saying the organization was involved in "illegal activity," according to CNet News. And online credit firm PayPal has refused to pass on donations to the site.
Speaking outside the court, Mark Stephens, Assange's British lawyer, said that a "renewed bail application will be made." Stephens added that the judge had requested to see the Swedish prosecutor's evidence, which has still not been seen by the WikiLeaks founder's defense team. "Many people believe Mr. Assange to be innocent, myself included," he continued. "Many people believe that this prosecution is politically motivated."
A full hearing on Assange's extradition case is set for next week. If the judge finds that there is sufficient evidence to justify his deportation at that hearing, the European Arrest Warrant procedure would allow Assange to be extradited to Sweden within 60 days. But that process can often be hit by lengthy delays. Last week, for instance, a district judge finally agreed to extradite British businessman Ian Griffin to France, 18 months after he was arrested in connection with the slaying of his girlfriend in a Paris hotel. Griffin had claimed he was suffering from a mental illness.
Although several WikiLeaks critics have celebrated Assange's arrest -- "I haven't heard that, but it sounds like good news to me," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during a visit to Afghanistan today, according to NBC News -- a spokesman for the site has pledged that the organization will continue to release information. "WikiLeaks is operational. We are continuing on the same track as laid out before," Kristinn Hrafnsson told Reuters. "Any development with regards to Julian Assange will not change the plans we have with regards to the releases today and in the coming days."
Assange's legal woes relate to sex-crime allegations filed against him this summer by two Swedish women. Gemma Lindfield, speaking for the Swedish authorities set out the charges in court today. She said the first complainant, Miss A, claimed she was a victim of "unlawful coercion" on the night of Aug. 14 in Stockholm. Assange is accused of using his body weight to hold her down in a sexual manner.
Miss A also alleged that she was "sexually molested" by Assange, who had sex with her without using a condom, when it was her "express wish" one should be used. The third charge claims Assange "deliberately molested" Miss A on Aug. 18 "in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity".
Finally Assange is accused of having sex with a second woman, Miss W, on Aug. 17 without a condom while she was asleep at her Stockholm home.
The WikiLeaks founder has admitted having consensual sex with the women. Assange believes that "personal issues" motivated the original allegations, The Guardian reports, and that Sweden has subsequently behaved as a "cipher" for the U.S.
Stephens told the BBC this weekend that he was worried the attempt to extradite his client to Sweden could be a precursor to moving him to the U.S. "It doesn't escape my attention that Sweden was one of those lickspittle states which used its resources and its facilities for rendition flights" by the U.S. to transport terrorism suspects around the world for interrogation, he said.
However, Sweden has rejected claims that it is seeking Assange's extradition on political grounds. "This investigation has proceeded perfectly normally without any political pressure of any kind," Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny told Agence France-Presse this weekend. "It is completely independent."
Assange and his lawyers have questioned that independence, noting that Sweden's chief prosecutor dropped the charges in September. The case was resurrected, Stephens claimed this weekend, only "after the intervention of a Swedish politician."
Although the Swedish allegations might be Assange's biggest worry at the moment, he could soon face legal challenges from governments troubled by WikiLeaks' recent release of diplomatic papers. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters on Monday that he had authorized "a number of things to be done" to combat WikiLeaks' activities. Asked if he might launch a prosecution under the Espionage Act, Holder replied, "That is certainly something that might play a role, but there are other statutes, other tools at our disposal."
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said her administration is investigating filing charges against Assange. "Information would not be on WikiLeaks if there had not been an illegal act undertaken," she said this morning. "The Australian Federal Police is going to provide the government with some advice about potential criminal conduct of the individual involved." However, many lawyers have criticized those comments, saying there is no evidence that Assange has committed a crime in Australia or even the U.S.
"First and foremost, Julian Assange is an Australian citizen who is entitled to the protection of his country and does not deserve to be betrayed by his country," one of the signatories, the prominent Australian barrister Julian Burnside, told Australia's ABC network. "Julia Gillard has been making it virtually impossible for Assange to return to Australia, where he is entitled to be. And she has even threatened to cancel his passport. That is an outrageous stance to take."
Should Assange eventually find himself sentenced to a spell in the slammer, or put on a plane to the U.S., he would still have one trump card left to play. Stephens noted this weekend that thousands of Assange's supporters had downloaded a digital "thermonuclear device" -- an encrypted computer file containing all of the papers WikiLeaks has ever received, listing the names of spies, soldiers and sources.
If the open-government activist is jailed, or if any harm comes to him, the encryption code to that file would be released, unleashing a flood of damaging documents. According to The Guardian, WikiLeaks currently has no plans to do that.