Wikileaks founder Julian Assange denied bail by London court

WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London, Britain January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/Files

LONDON (Reuters) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is fighting extradition from Britain to the United States, was denied bail on Wednesday after his lawyers said he should be released because he was at high risk of contracting the coronavirus in prison.

The 48-year-old is wanted by the United States on 18 criminal counts of conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law and says he could spend decades in prison if convicted.

“As matters stand today, this global pandemic does not as of itself provide grounds for Mr Assange’s release,” said Judge Vanessa Baraitser at Westminster Magistrates’ Court.

She said Assange’s past conduct showed how far he was prepared to go to avoid extradition proceedings, and there were substantial grounds to believe that if released he would abscond again.

She was referring to the fact that Assange skipped bail and fled to the Ecuadorean embassy in London in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he was wanted at the time to answer questions on alleged sex crimes. The allegations have since been dropped.

Assange remained holed up in the embassy for seven years. He was eventually dragged out after Ecuador revoked his asylum.

He is being held at Belmarsh Prison in London.

Reporting by Michael Holden, editing by Estelle Shirbon