LONDON (Reuters) - Nine people who put up bail guarantees for Julian Assange argued in court on Wednesday they should not be forced to pay after the WikiLeaks founder sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
Vaughan Smith - one of the nine, who between them put up 140,000 pounds ($225,000) - told Westminster Magistrates Court in London they were not to blame for Assange violating the terms of his bail.
Assange was arrested on an extradition warrant and is wanted for questioning in Sweden over allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two former volunteers at WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing website which angered the United States by releasing thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables in 2010.
He denies the allegations and says he had consensual sex with the women. He says he fears that if extradited to Sweden, he could then be transferred to the United States where he could face criminal charges punishable by death.
Assange broke bail conditions when he entered the Ecuadorean embassy in June shortly after running out of legal options to avoid being sent to Sweden.
A judge will deliver a ruling in the coming days on whether the bail sureties, pledged when Assange was released from detention in December 2010, must be collected.
The case was "wholly exceptional" because Assange was claiming asylum when he broke bail, said Henry Blaxland, a lawyer for some of the guarantors, who include British Nobel prize-winning biologist John Sulston and Australian-born journalist Phillip Knightley.
"The fact is that Mr Assange has secured sanctuary as a political refugee in a country with which Great Britain has an established and normal diplomatic relationship. How can this fact have no legal standing?" Smith said in court, reading from a statement prepared by the guarantors, fiv e of whom were present for the hearing.
Ecuador granted Assange asylum but he remains at the embassy and Britain says he will be arrested if he leaves the premises.
The case has strained relations between Britain and Ecuador. British Foreign Secretary William Hague met his Ecuadorean counterpart last month to reassure him Britain's extradition law included "extensive human rights safeguards".
Editing by Tim Castle and Janet Lawrence