WikiLeaks founder Assange in talks with British officials to come out of hiding
Monday, December 6, 2010; 8:55 PM
LONDON - Julian Assange, founder of the WikiLeaks Web site, was in negotiations with British authorities late Monday to come out of hiding for what is set to be a high-profile extradition hearing to face criminal allegations in Sweden.
Assange - whose Web site's release of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables is generating outrage and embarrassment in official circles - was reportedly close to agreeing to appear in a British courtroom as early as Tuesday. Scotland Yard declined to comment on the negotiations.
On Monday, Scotland Yard received a fresh warrant for Assange's arrest from Swedish authorities. He is being sought for questioning related to allegations of sexual assault on two women.
Assange and his supporters have denied the accusations, calling them part of an elaborate plot to silence WikiLeaks. Since publication of the latest round of documents began last week, the pressure has mounted on Assange, who was being sought internationally on an Interpol warrant, and on WikiLeaks itself, which is in a global battle to keep its financial and distribution system intact.
U.S. officials expressed outrage Monday after WikiLeaks released a State Department cable that listed sites worldwide whose "loss" could "critically impact" the health, communications, economy or security of the United States. In addition to listing dams, bridges and mines, the cable identified specific factories that are key producers of vaccines and weapons parts.
The release of the list "is really irresponsible. It is tantamount to giving a group like al-Qaeda a targeting list," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
Assange, a 39-year-old Australian national, has been in hiding for weeks and is thought to be in southern Britain, not far from London. In a video statement to the BBC, Assange's attorney, Mark Stephens, said Scotland Yard notified him late Monday about the extradition request and asked for a meeting to interview his client. "We are in the process of making arrangements to meet with the police by consent," Stephens said.
Stephens declined to say when that meeting could take place. But according to the Guardian newspaper, which has partnered with WikiLeaks in reviewing and publishing select cables, Assange may be preparing to appear in a British courtroom as early as Tuesday to try to negotiate bail, which could run from $160,000 to $320,000.
In a warning to Swedish and U.S. authorities - who are investigating whether Assange can be brought up on charges related to the release of classified documents - Stephens said this weekend that his client was prepared to retaliate if charged. He said Assange may release the secret code - with a 256-bit encryption key - of a massive file quietly distributed this summer that contains thousands of un-redacted documents.
The allegations against Assange in Sweden stem a trip he took there in August, during which he had brief relationships with two women, engaging in what he has since described as consensual sex.
Both women, according to Swedish authorities, have conceded that sex with Assange started as consensual but allege that it later became non-consensual. If convicted on the most serious of charges against him, Assange faces up to four years in prison.
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington and special correspondent Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi in London contributed to this report.