LONDON – The once-elusive Julian Assange was freed on bail Thursday, releasing the WikiLeaks founder to continue his work as Sweden pushes its case for extradition and the United States considers its own criminal charges over his website's release of secret information.
The silver-haired Australian emerged from London's neo-Gothic High Court building after a tense scramble to gather the money and signatures needed to free him. Speaking under a light snowfall amid a barrage of flash bulbs, Assange — who's been out of the public eye for more than a month — told supporters he would pursue his efforts to bring government secrets to light.
"It's great to smell the fresh air of London again," he said to cheers from outside the court. "I hope to continue my work."
Assange is now headed to Ellingham Hall, a 10-bedroom mansion about 120 miles (195 kilometers) northeast of central London that belongs to Vaughan Smith, a WikiLeaks supporter and founder of London's Frontline Club for journalists.
Assange will have to observe a curfew, wear an electronic tag and report to police every day — restrictions imposed by High Court Justice Duncan Ouseley.
WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said Assange could use the 600-acre estate to continue coordinating the publication of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, whose publication has angered U.S. government officials, embarrassed allies and nettled rivals. The U.S. State Department says that international partners are have already curtailed their dealings with Washington as a result of the cable leaks, but there's still much more to be disclosed.
So far WikiLeaks has published some 1,621 U.S. diplomatic cables — less than 1 percent of the 250,000 cables it claims to have in reserve. A batch of 74 new cables appeared on the organization's website about two hours before Assange was released.
Hrafnsson described the restrictions on Assange's movements as amounting to "virtual house arrest," but said Assange would still be able to work.
"There is a good internet connection there," he noted.
Although U.S. officials have been looking at possible charges to levy against the 39-year-old Australian for his role in the mass leaks, Assange's current legal troubles stem from his personal life.
Swedish officials are seeking him for questioning on allegations stemming from separate encounters with a pair of women in Sweden over the summer, accusations that have clouded his reputation and prompted complaints from supporters that Assange is being persecuted because of his activities.
Swedish prosecutors have rejected those allegations.
The women have accused Assange of rape, molestation and unlawful coercion. 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.
Lawyer Gemma Lindfield, acting for Sweden, said the allegations 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.
Swedish Prosecutor Marianne Ny said the bail decision would not change the ongoing investigation in Sweden, and the extradition case would be handled by British authorities.