LONDON — Julian Assange lost one legal bid Tuesday that could have dramatically altered the long-running saga that has compelled the controversial WikiLeaks founder to take refuge in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London for more than five years.
But his case continues, with more hearings and court dates to come.
A British judge rejected his lawyers’ first argument that an existing arrest warrant against Assange should be withdrawn because the Swedish charges that underlie it have been shelved.
Lawyers for Assange argued in a London courtroom that the outstanding British warrant, issued after he skipped bail, had “lost its purpose and function” following Sweden’s decision last year to drop an investigation into sexual assault allegations.
“I’m not persuaded that the warrant should be withdrawn,” Judge Emma Arbuthnot said in her ruling.
The judge suggested that Assange could address the British warrant but that first he had to surrender and appear in court. “Once at court, a defendant will be given an opportunity to put an argument for reasonable cause. And that is when Mr. Assange will be able to place that before the court,” the judge said.
After being rejected on the first motion to quash the arrest warrant because the Swedish assault investigation has been dropped, Assange’s lawyers pivoted and argued that British authorities should stop pursuing him for violating his bail terms because it is no longer in the public interest.
The judge agreed that Assange’s legal team could make a public-interest argument and set another hearing on the matter for Feb. 13.
Assange has been staying — virtually imprisoned, he says — at the Ecuadoran Embassy for five years. Ecuadoran authorities have indicated that he has worn out his welcome there. He was granted asylum by Ecuador’s previous president, leftist Rafael Correa. But President Lenín Moreno, who took office in May 2017, has been trying to steer a more centrist course and improve relations with the United States and Europe.
If Assange steps off embassy grounds, he faces arrest for skipping bail in 2012 when he sought refuge in the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he was wanted for questioning about alleged sex crimes.
Last year, Sweden dropped its investigation into rape allegations against Assange because it was unable to get access to him.
Ahead of Tuesday’s ruling, a small group of Assange supporters gathered outside the court in central London. Some carried placards reading “Assange safe passage” and “Don’t shoot the messenger.”
Assange has denied the allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden — he claimed the sex was consensual — but he has long argued that there is an international effort led by Washington to persecute him for his role in the publication of hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. government documents, diplomatic cables and emails.
It is not publicly known whether there is a sealed U.S. indictment against Assange.
Assange has been living in a tiny room in the Ecuadoran Embassy, and his organization continues to release sensitive documents on the Internet. Born in Australia, the 46-year-old recently was granted Ecuadoran citizenship in a bid by the country’s president to end the embassy standoff. But Britain refused to grant Assange safe passage so he could leave the country, citing the outstanding arrest warrant.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, WikiLeaks published a trove of emails from the Democratic National Committee and John D. Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. Last year, WikiLeaks released documents detailing U.S. government hacking tools.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo has denounced the anti-secrecy group as a “nonstate hostile intelligence service” and a threat to U.S. national security. He also suggested that Assange cannot protect those who pass him classified information.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Assange called Pompeo’s statements “very strange and bombastic.”
In the past year, Assange also has been active in a campaign to support secessionists in the Catalonia region of Spain.