- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 7, 2010

LONDON (AP) — A British judge on Tuesday denied bail for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who told a London court he intends to fight his extradition to Sweden on sex-crime allegations.

Judge Howard Riddle of the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court told Mr. Assange he had “substantial grounds” to believe Mr. Assange wouldn’t turn up for subsequent proceedings. Judge Riddle then put Mr. Assange into U.K. custody ahead of an extradition hearing.

Mr. Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, appeared in court after turning himself in to Scotland Yard earlier Tuesday to face a Swedish arrest warrant.

He was asked whether he understood he could consent to be extradited to Sweden, where he faces allegations of rape, molestation and unlawful coercion.

Clearing his throat, Mr. Assange said, “I understand that, and I do not consent.”

Mr. Assange’s arrest was the latest blow to WikiLeaks, which faces legal, financial and technological challenges after releasing hundreds of secret U.S. diplomatic cables. WikiLeaks has seen its bank accounts canceled and its websites 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 also has seen an online army of supporters come to its aid, sending donations, fighting off computer attacks and setting up more than 500 mirror sites around the world to make sure that the secret documents are published regardless of what happens to Mr. Assange.

The legal troubles for Mr. Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, stem from allegations leveled against him by two women he met in Sweden over the summer. Mr. Assange is accused of rape and sexual molestation in one case and of sexual molestation and unlawful coercion in another.

Mr. Assange denies the allegations, which his British attorney, Mark Stephens, says stem from a “dispute over consensual but unprotected sex.”

Mr. Assange and Mr. Stephens have suggested the prosecution is being manipulated for political reasons — a claim that Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny has rejected. Ms. Ny was not commenting on the Assange arrest until later Tuesday.

A spokesman for WikiLeaks called Mr. 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 Ms. 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. Ms. Hrafnsson said that will only come into play if “grave matters” involving WikiLeaks staff occur, but she 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 eventually will 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.

On Tuesday, credit-card giant Visa said it had suspended all payments to WikiLeaks pending an investigation of the organization’s business. Visa’s decision is a powerful blow to the loosely knit WikiLeaks organization, which relies on online donations to fund its operations.

Swiss authorities closed Mr. 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 Mr. Assange‘s arrest was imminent.

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