Snow began falling outside the Royal Courts of Justice moments before Julian Assange emerged, at 6pm, to speak to the world’s media clustered around the steps.
“It’s good to smell the fresh air,” he said before thanking his lawyers, supporters and sections of the press. Five hours earlier, Mr Justice Ouseley had rejected the appeal against his bail by the Crown Prosecution Service, after demanding that the defence team put up sureties in addition to the two already offered.
Five more were eventually found — from people such as the great Australian journalist Philip Knightley, former Oz publisher Felix Dennis, who had to be chased up around the country to supply the necessary documentation to guarantee the money.
The case, in the stone and marble corridors of the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, was brought about when the Crown Prosecution Service appealed the granting of bail at central Westminster magistrate’s court two days earlier.
At that time Assange had been bailed on the understanding that he would live at the Suffolk mansion of captain Vaughan Smith, the dashing former Grenadier Guard and war correspondent who founded the Frontline Club.
The Crown Prosecution Service appealed the decision, delaying Assange’s release for two days. They argued that there had been no significant change in the conditions offered by Assange and his supporters, and that additional sureties were of little import — as they were political supporters and would be potentially supportive of a decision to abscond.
Assange’s defence, again presented by Geoffrey Robertson QC, was that the onus was on the prosecution to prove the need for bail, that Assange does have a powerful motive not to sully his integrity by absconding, that lack of a fixed address was per se no measure of likelihood of flight risk, and that Assange’s problems with frozen bank accounts meant that he was not exactly the international man of mystery he was supposed to be.
Justice Ouseley in reviewing the case appeared to give weight to both sides as regards incentive for flight, while ultimately agreeing with the defence’s contention that there was substantial incentive not to flee.
However, he required a wider network of people to stand surety, with the defence offering up Knightley, Dennis, academic Patricia David, former Labour peer Lord Evans, biologist Sir John Saunston and Baronness Tracy Worcester among others. John Pilger was also offered as a potential provider of a surety, but the judge said that the case probably already had too many peripatetic Australians
Several of these had to be located at quick notice across the country, leaving about 100 journalists hanging around the courts. Though the judge, scowling and terse in his black robe and red necktie, had banned tweeting from the court, the sureties were collected online in some cases, an appropriate tip of the hat to modern methods.
Nevertheless it was strange to spend hours waiting in these draughty halls, with their high vaulted stone ceilings, contemplating a case focused on — though of course about other matters — the man who has created one of the most substantial political crunches of the 21st century, being decided in a monument to medieval power, to the notion of solidity and permanence.
Assange’s mother came out on to the steps mid-afternoon, to express her happiness, and gratitude to British justice. It was a joyful moment. Two days earlier, jammed in the back of the public gallery of the Mag court, she had squeezed into the corner to get a glimpse of Assange as he was taken into the glass witness box, and given a start and a small sad wave.
It had been a sudden human moment, in what has become a global power struggle — a woman who by all accounts has known more than her fair share of trouble, again in court to stand up for her brilliant, strange, uncompromising son.
Then Assange was released, and the circus resumed. Assange gave his brief speech, and disappeared back into the court, before emerging later in the passenger seat of Vaughan Smith’s white modified armour-plated car, barrelling down The Strand. There he will reconvene the court of WikiLeaks, wearing an electronic tag as he trudges down the corridors past the Georgian paintings of previous bucks and dandies.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. The release of cables has continued while Assange has been in the chokey, giving the lie to suggestions that the org is just Assange and a laptop. The Swedes are rumoured to be about to fire some big guns in the form of evidence releases tomorrow. And there are mutterings that the US is exploring the possibility of a conspiracy charge (ironically), arguing that Assange tempted Bradley Manning to steal more than half a million documents, and release them to WikiLeaks.
Assange’s extradition hearing proper is set for early February. Christmas, in a snowbound mansion, with a soldier-journalist, mum, the wikikids, an Icelandic ice-god and sundry extras, will be like a Fellini movie. Then it all begins again.