LONDON — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange surrendered to London police Tuesday as part of a Swedish sex-crimes investigation, the latest blow to an organization that faces legal, financial and technological challenges after releasing hundreds of secret U.S. diplomatic cables.
Assange was due at Westminster Magistrate’s Court later Tuesday. If he challenges his extradition to Sweden, he will likely be remanded into U.K. custody or released on bail until another judge rules on whether to extradite him, a spokeswoman for the extradition department said on customary condition of anonymity.
Since beginning to release the diplomatic cables last week, WikiLeaks has seen its bank accounts canceled and its web sites attacked. The U.S. government has launched a criminal investigation, saying the group has jeopardized U.S. national security and diplomatic efforts around the world.
WikiLeaks has also seen an online army of supporters come to its aid, sending donations, fighting off computer attacks and setting up over 500 mirror sites around the world to make sure that the secret documents are published regardless of what happens to Assange.
The legal troubles for Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, stem from allegations leveled against him by two women he met in Sweden over the summer. Assange is accused of rape and sexual molestation in one case and of sexual molestation and unlawful coercion in another.
Assange denies the allegations, which his British attorney Mark Stephens says stem from a “dispute over consensual but unprotected sex.”
Assange and Stephens have suggested the prosecution is being manipulated for political reasons — a claim that Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny has rejected. Ny was not commenting on the Assange arrest until later Tuesday.
A spokesman for WikiLeaks called Assange’s arrest an attack on media freedom and said it won’t prevent the organization from releasing more secret documents.
“This will not change our operation,” Kristinn Hrafnsson told The Associated Press.
But Hrafnsson also said the group had no plans at the moment to release the key to a heavily encrypted version of some of its most important documents — an “insurance” file that has been distributed to supporters in case of an emergency. Hrafnsson said that will only come into play if “grave matters” involving Wikileaks staff occur — but did not elaborate on what those would be.
Beginning in July, WikiLeaks angered the U.S. government by releasing tens of thousands of secret U.S. military documents. That was followed by the ongoing release of what WikiLeaks says will eventually be a quarter-million cables from U.S. diplomatic posts around the world. The group provided those documents to five major newspapers, which have been working with WikiLeaks to edit the cables for publication.
The campaign against WikiLeaks began with an effort to jam the website as the cables were being released. U.S. Internet companies Amazon.com, Inc., EveryDNS and PayPal, Inc. then severed their links with WikiLeaks in quick succession, forcing it to jump to new servers and adopt a new primary Web address — wikileaks.ch — in Switzerland.
Swiss authorities closed Assange’s new Swiss bank account Monday, and MasterCard has pulled the plug on payments to WikiLeaks, according to technology news website CNET. A European representative for the credit card company didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.
The attacks appeared to have been at least partially successful in stanching the flow of secrets: WikiLeaks has not published any new cables in more than 24 hours, although stories about them have continued to appear in The New York Times and Britain’s The Guardian, two of the newspapers given advance access to the cables.
WikiLeaks’ Twitter feed, generally packed with updates, appeals and pithy comments, has been silent since Monday night, when the group warned that Assange’s arrest was imminent.