Vilified Assange may not get fair hearing, says friend
LONDON (Reuters) - Julian Assange has been demonized and may not have fair access to justice, one of his British backers said on Thursday, defending the WikiLeaks founder's decision to jump bail and hole up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
Vaughan Smith, who hosted Assange at his country mansion for a year while the Australian battled to avoid extradition to Sweden, was given no warning of Assange's dramatic plan even though he stands to lose 20,000 pounds ($31,500) in bail money.
Despite this, Smith has been speaking out on behalf of his friend, accusing the Western media of double standards.
"We seem to welcome it when a Chinese dissident goes to an American embassy, but when an Australian dissident in London goes to an Ecuadorean embassy we try to suggest it's nuts," Smith told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing in April in a high-profile case that caused diplomatic tensions with Washington. Chen was eventually allowed to fly to the United States with his wife and his two children.
Assange was due to be flown within days from Britain to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over alleged sexual assault, when he sought refuge at the embassy on Tuesday. He risks being arrested for breaching his bail terms if he emerges.
The former computer hacker, who angered Washington in 2010 by posting secret U.S. diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks, denies the allegations. He fears being sent on to the United States where he believes he could face charges punishable by death.
"I don't think we should be blind to that possibility. He clearly believes that. We can't comment whether that's realistic, but I think we can accept that it's reasonable for him to believe that," said Smith, calling on Sweden to offer assurances that it would not fly Assange to the United States.
Smith said he did not know exactly what Assange's plan was when he entered the embassy, but he was convinced the activist was acting in what he believed were the interests of WikiLeaks.
"He is no fool. He is a clever man, and he is very committed to his work at WikiLeaks which he is convinced serves a social purpose. I can assure you that he's committed to carrying on, and that's what I believe is his main motivator," he said.
Neither Swedish nor U.S. authorities have charged Assange with anything. His critics say he should go to Sweden to answer the allegations made by two former WikiLeaks volunteers in 2010.
"Why should we automatically assume that justice is freely available to Assange in Sweden?" asked Smith, who has championed independent journalism through a now defunct war reporting TV news agency, and through his Frontline media club in London.
He criticized Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt for commenting publicly on the Assange case - an objection that has also been voiced by Assange's British legal team.
"We would be disturbed by that in this country. We would feel it was not correct," said Smith.
"Considering the uniqueness of his situation, the Swedes could have attempted to reassure him and they haven't. They've done absolutely nothing to reassure him," he said.
Smith gave Assange shelter after a British court granted him bail in December 2010, pending extradition proceedings. Assange stayed at Smith's sprawling countryside property for a year until he moved on to stay with other friends just before Christmas 2011 because Smith's wife was about to have a baby.
The two remain friends and Assange phoned Smith from inside the embassy on Wednesday to thank him for taking his side.
Others who contributed to Assange's 240,000 pounds in bail money have been less supportive. Among them is celebrity socialite Jemima Khan, who tweeted on Wednesday that she had expected him to face the allegations and was "surprised".
($1 = 0.6354 British pounds)
(Editing by Jon Hemming)
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