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Judge grants bail to WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange

LONDON — Julian Assange will be freed on bail and sent to stay at a British country mansion, a U.K. judge ruled Thursday, rejecting prosecutors’ attempts to keep the WikiLeaks founder in prison as he fights extradition to Sweden.

Cheers erupted from supporters outside the London court as the verdict by High Court justice Duncan Ouseley was reported.

Assange’s lawyer, Mark Stephens, said he was “utterly delighted” with the judge’s ruling, which included an order that prosecutors pay his client’s court costs.

Prosecutors had argued there was a risk the 39-year-old Australian, who faces sex-crimes allegations in Sweden, would abscond if he was freed. But Ouseley said if Assange fled “he would diminish himself in the eyes of many of his supporters” — and make famous backers like filmmaker Michael Moore look foolish.

“I don’t accept that Mr. Assange has an incentive not to attend (court),” Ouseley said. “He clearly does have some desire to clear his name.”

Assange, dressed in a dark gray suit, smiled and gave a thumb’s up sign to a packed courtroom as he was led from the dock by guards. It was not immediately clear how long it would take before he was released.

His lawyers need to produce the 200,000 pounds ($316,000) bail pledged by several wealthy supporters. Stephens said Assange would be released “sometime later today or on a worst-case analysis tomorrow.”

Assange was granted a conditional release on bail by a lower court Tuesday, but prosecutors appealed.

Ouseley made some amendments to the earlier bail conditions. Assange must wear an electronic tag, report to police every day and observe a curfew. He also must stay at a registered address — a 10-bedroom mansion in eastern England owned by Vaughan Smith, a WikiLeaks supporter and founder of London’s Frontline Club for journalists.

Assange has been in prison since Dec. 7, following his surrender to British police over a Swedish warrant. He denies any wrongdoing but is refusing to surrender to Sweden’s request to extradite him for questioning.

Two women have accused Assange of sexual misconduct — including rape, molestation and unlawful coercion — for separate incidents in August in Sweden. He has not been charged.

Assange’s lawyers say the allegations stem from a dispute over “consensual but unprotected sex” and argue that he has offered to make himself available for questioning via video link or in person in Britain.

Last month WikiLeaks deeply angered U.S. officials by beginning to publish its trove of 250,000 secret U.S. diplomatic cables.

Assange’s supporters suspect the claims against him are politically motivated — a charge Sweden has denied.

Lawyer Gemma Lindfield, acting for Sweden, said the charges had enhanced Assange’s reputation among his supporters, who “view it as part of the wider conspiracy.”

She said given Assange’s nomadic lifestyle and loose ties to some of those promising bond, there was “a real risk” he would flee.

But the judge said when Assange arrived in Britain, he had asked his lawyers to contact police so they would know where he was.

“That is not the conduct of a person who is seeking to evade justice,” Ouseley said.