The British arrest warrant against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is still valid, a court has ruled in a blow to his continuing bid for freedom.
Lawyers for Assange had argued that the warrant should be dismissed because it had "lost its purpose and function" after a Swedish investigation into allegations of sexual assault and rape was dropped last year.
He has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for more than five years, fearing extradition to the US for questioning over the activities of WikiLeaks.
The outstanding arrest warrant dates back to 2012, associated with the Swedish investigation, which was closed a year ago. Lawyers for Assange claimed the UK arrest warrant serves no legitimate purpose, but has been maintained regardless.
Senior District Judge Emma Arbuthnot said at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday afternoon that she was not persuaded the warrant should be withdrawn.
In front of a packed public gallery, she said not surrendering to bail was a standalone offence under the Bail Act.
She said: "On a straightforward reading of the section: 1. Mr Assange has been bailed. 2. He has failed to surrender. 3. If he has no reasonable cause he will be guilty of an offence.
"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. I’m not persuaded that the warrant should be withdrawn."
Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder, in pictures
Mr Assange believes he will be extradited to the United States if he leaves the embassy for questioning about the activities of WikiLeaks.
His lawyers point out that the UK authorities refuse to confirm or deny whether a US extradition warrant has been received.
Mr Assange entered the embassy in June 2012 after skipping bail. Last month, the court heard he was suffering from depression, a frozen shoulder and toothache.
Who is Julian Assange?
By Henry Samuel and Harriet Alexander
Julian Assange – born Julian Paul Hawkins on July 3 1971 – is the founder of WikiLeaks, a website set up to allow whistleblowers to release documents anonymously.
The 45-year-old Australian computer hacker started the site in 2006.
But it was not until the publication of information about the US military, leaked by Chelsea Manning, that WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief became household names.
Among the leaks were a video entitled Collateral Murder, showing unarmed Iraqis being gunned down by an American helicopters; the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, which revealed the true human cost of the conflicts; and over 250,000 diplomatic cables, which shone an uncomfortable spotlight on US foreign policy.
Mr Assange has since been involved in the publication of material documenting extrajudicial killings in Kenya, a report on toxic waste dumping on the Ivory Coast, Church of Scientology manuals, Guantanamo Bay detention camp procedures and material involving large banks such as Kaupthing and Julius Baer.
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His work brought him international fame – at one point, there were five major films about WikiLeaks in development. Two were eventually made: We Steal Secrets, a documentary, and The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Mr Assange spoke out against both films, and in a letter to Cumberbatch said that The Fifth Estate "vilifies and marginalises a living political refugee to the benefit of an entrenched, corrupt and dangerous state".
He travelled the world speaking about WikiLeaks and his work, and became something of a hero to anti-establishment activists.
How did he end up inside the Ecuadorian embassy?
The saga began in Sweden. Mr Assange was in the country in August 2010 to speak at a conference.
While he was there, he met two women and had sex with them. They later filed complaints of rape and molestation – accusations that he denied. Mr Assange was questioned but never charged and left the country.
On November 20, Interpol issued a Red Notice for Mr Assange’s arrest. A week later he gave himself up, appeared before a judge in Westminster, and in December 2010 was granted bail after his supporters paid £240,000 in cash and sureties.
Legal wrangling in the UK continued until June 2012, with the Swedish prosecutors calling for him to be extradited, and Mr Assange’s lawyers saying that if he was sent to Sweden he would be at risk of then being extradited to the US.
On June 19, 2012, he fled bail and applied for asylum in Ecuador, through the embassy in Knightsbridge. But police encircled the embassy and refused to allow him to leave: the UK says its courts have ruled he must be sent to Sweden.
Ecuador granted him asylum in August 2012. He has been inside the embassy ever since.
"I am entirely innocent," Assange wrote in a 19-page testimony released in December 2016.
He argues that the sex was consensual and has denounced the accusations as "politically motivated".
Could Britain extradite Assange to the US?
If the US government wishes to extradite Assange, it would need to be in a position to charge him and have an indictment signed off.
Officials could then apply for a provisional arrest warrant, which could be issued in a matter of hours.
The US authorities would then have a further 65 days to apply for a full extradition warrant, putting forward the grounds on which they wish to charge him.
The extradition process could then begin, which could take several months as lawyers for Assange argue why he should not answer the charges in the US.
If no indictment has been drafted, the American authorities could be in a race against time to complete the legal process before Assange completes any sentence he is handed in Britain for breaching bail.