LONDON - After nine days in jail, Julian Assange was released on bail Thursday by a British high court judge who ruled that the WikiLeaks founder could fight extradition to Sweden over sex-crimes allegations from the tony confines of a friend's country estate.
Assange was released Thursday evening after putting up nearly $375,000 in cash in bail and other financial assurances. In a sign of how politically charged the case is, the courthouse stayed open late so that the 39-year-old Australian could complete the required paperwork and emerge a free man.
"It's great to smell fresh air of London again," Assange said triumphantly on the courthouse steps, as fat snowflakes swirled in the air and admirers cheered. He thanked his supporters, his lawyers, and the British legal system, "where if justice is not always an outcome, at least it is not dead yet."
Assange now swaps what his lawyer called the "Dickensian conditions" of a south London jail for the comforts of a 10-bedroom manor set on 600 acres of prime English countryside. The sprawling estate of Ellingham Hall, northeast of London, belongs to a friend who had vouched for Assange in court.
The terms of Assange's bail require him to surrender his passport, abide by a curfew, and report daily to police. He must also wear an electronic tag so authorities can monitor his movements.
He is due in court again early next month for proceedings on his potential extradition to Sweden, where authorities want to question him over allegations of molestation, unlawful coercion, and rape stemming from encounters he had with two women in August.
Assange denies any wrongdoing, saying the case is politically motivated, possibly at the direction of U.S. officials angry over WikiLeaks' release of secret State Department and Pentagon documents. Swedish prosecutors insist their pursuit of Assange has nothing to do with the revelations on his whistle-blowing website.
On Friday, Australia's prime minister, Julia Gillard, said police had determined that WikiLeaks had not broken any of the country's laws in publishing the documents.
But before leaving London on Thursday evening for what his lawyer called "mansion arrest," Assange voiced worry about what might happen if the United States succeeded in laying its hands on him. There are reports that American officials may be trying to find a way to charge him with espionage.
"I don't have too many fears about being extradited to Sweden," Assange said. "There are much bigger concerns about being extradited to the United States."
Sweden's extradition request could take weeks, possibly months, to resolve.
In court Thursday, Assange's lawyers argued that he posed no flight risk and would find it hard to be a successful fugitive now that his face was known the world over. A number of high-profile personalities, including British movie director Ken Loach and American filmmaker Michael Moore, offered to act as guarantors of his bond.
Prosecutors objected, saying Assange lived a "nomadic" lifestyle that made it a "real risk" he would try to abscond.
With his release, he will be enjoying "a slice of Georgian splendor," as one newspaper put it, on a manorial estate belonging to Vaughan Smith, a former soldier who founded the Frontline Club for journalists in London. Assange lived at the club for a brief period before his arrest last week.
Assange will also have unfettered access to the Internet once again after nine days of limited contact.