Judge locks up leaks-site founder

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was refused bail yesterday as he vowed to fight attempts to extradite him to Sweden.

The 39-year-old Australian was remanded in custody after appearing before a judge over claims that he sexually assaulted two women.

He turned himself in to Scotland Yard detectives after a two-week guessing game over his whereabouts.

His legal team said it would make a second attempt to regain his freedom when he appeared in court again next Tuesday.

It claimed Swedish prosecutors were put under political pressure to help to silence and discredit Assange.

The remand in custody came despite the offer of a 180,000 surety from backers including journalist John Pilger, socialite Jemima Khan and film director Ken Loach.

Supporters said the move would not hinder the stream of United States diplomatic cables published on the WikiLeaks website.

The latest documents included details of a Nato defence plan for Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

But the organisation suffered fresh blows to its finances as global payment giants Visa and MasterCard said they would no longer service it. WikiLeaks has already been forced to change domains, its servers and lost the use of PayPal as a series of companies severed ties.

United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates welcomed the news about Assange during a visit to Afghanistan. "That sounds like good news to me," he said.

Prosecutors in Stockholm want to question Assange over claims he sexually assaulted two women during a visit to Sweden in August.

The allegations include rape and molestation in one case and molestation and unlawful coercion in a second.

Assange has denied the allegations which he has claimed stem from a dispute over "consensual but unprotected sex".

City of Westminster Magistrates' Court heard Assange had been staying at the Frontline Club, a journalist's centre in central London.

Assange, who was accompanied by officials from the Australian High Commission, gave his address as a post box in his native country.

Gemma Lindfield, for the Swedish authorities, said Assange should not be granted bail because of his nomadic lifestyle, international contacts and lack of ties.

She added that custody would also be for his safety as "any number of people could take it upon themselves to cause him harm".

District Judge Howard Riddle refused bail on the grounds there was a risk Assange would fail to surrender.

Speaking after the hearing, Assange's solicitor Mark Stephens said WikiLeaks is supported by "thousands" of people worldwide and will not be disrupted.

He said: "Many people believe Mr Assange to be innocent, myself included, and many people believe that this prosecution is politically motivated."

Mr Pilger said Assange was "innocent" and being "denied justice".

He said: "This is a man who has made some very serious enemies for the very best of reasons and done a job of extraordinary journalism which benefits all of us."

Jemima Khan, whose brother Zac Goldsmith recently won the Richmond Park and North Kingston seat as a Conservative MP, said she was supporting Assange, whom she had never met, "because I believe this is about the principle of the universal right of freedom of information and our right to be told the truth."

A colleague of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said last night it was "quite disturbing" that he had been refused bail. Gavin MacFadyen, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, told Sky News the turn of events constituted a "serious assault on whistle-blowing journalism".