Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks — who took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012, to avoid being extradited to Sweden on sexual assault charges — has been sentenced to 50 weeks in jail, just under the maximum possible sentence of 12 months for flouting bail conditions, by a court in London.

The sentence comes ahead of a hearing due to take place later this week at the Westminster Magistrates Court as part of efforts to extradite him to the US.

‘Exploited position’

During the sentencing hearing at the Southwark Crown Court, Judge Deborah Taylor rejected arguments by defence barrister Mark Summers (who led the prosecution team in the Vijay Mallya extradition proceedings) that Assange had been gripped by a “well-founded” fear of potential extradition to the US — and hence on to Guantanamo Bay — when he sought refuge in the Embassy in 2012.

The US Justice Department has charged Assange with conspiring with Chelsea Manning, a former intelligence analyst, to break into a classified US government computer by cracking a Department of Defence password.

Judge Taylor told the court that it was difficult to find a “more serious example” of breach of bail conditions.

“This was in terms of culpability a deliberate attempt to evade or delay justice.” Assange had a “choice” to enter and remain within the Embassy in circumstances that did not amount to prison condition.

“You remained there for nearly seven years, exploiting your privileged position to flout the law and advertise internationally your disdain for the law of this country…You could have left at any time to face the due process with the rights and protection which the legal system in this country provides.”

Extent of cooperation

His residence had cost UK taxpayers £16 million, while proceedings in Sweden were discontinued because of his action, she concluded.

“Even though you did co-operate initially, it was not for you to decide the nature of extent of your cooperation with the investigations,’’ she told the court.

The defence team had contended that Assange and his Swedish legal team had been “proactive” in attempting to progress the Swedish investigation, including facilitation of an interview with him in the UK.

They had also argued that as a result of the confinement in the Embassy, Assange had suffered “significant consequences” himself, which were “punitive, significant, and enduring in their nature.”

Political debate

Assange sought and was granted asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2012, after his appeal to the UK Supreme Court was rejected and a warrant was issued for his extradition to Sweden to face allegations of sexual offending, including rape.

However, earlier this year — as relations between Assange and Ecuadorian authorities broke down amid accusations and counter accusations — the asylum was revoked and Metropolitan Police officers were invited into the Embassy to arrest Assange on April 11.

The Home Office confirmed the arrest had taken place in relation to the provisional extradition request from the US.

Later that day, Assange was convicted of breaking bail conditions relating to the Swedish allegations, to which he pleaded not guilty.

Supporters of Assange gathered inside and outside the courtroom to protest the legal proceedings, while Wikileaks described the sentence as “shocking” and “vindictive.”

“We have grave concerns as to whether he will receive a fair extradition hearing in the UK,” the whistle-blowing organisation said in a statement.

The issue of Assange’s extradition to the US has become the subject of political debate in the UK, with the Labour Party expressing its opposition to those effort.

In April, the Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, said that Assange was being pursued by the US not to protect national security, but because he had “exposed wrongdoing by US administrations and their military forces…These whistle-blowing activities about illegal wars, mass murder, murder of civilians, and corruption on a grand scale have put Julian Assange in the crosshairs of the US Administration,” she told the House of Commons.