ALSO READWikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange's Twitter account briefly disappears Britain refuses Ecuador's request to grant diplomatic status to Assange Assange says WikiLeaks rejected request by data firm tied to Donald Trump Julian Assange a free man now? Ecuador grants WikiLeaks founder citizenship Memo row: Fired Google employee gets a job offer from WikiLeaks
In a setback to Julian Assange, a British court on Tuesday ruled that an UK arrest warrant against the Wikileaks founder was still valid, signalling that he could be arrested if he tries to leave the Ecuadorian embassy here where he has been holed up since 2012.
A handful of supporters waving "Free Assange" banners had gathered outside Westminster Magistrates Court in London in anticipation of the ruling in the high-profile case involving the 46-year-old Australian national.
But the judge ruled that it was "not uncommon" for a warrant for failing to surrender to remain valid when there were no underlying proceedings pending.
Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot, the judge who is currently also presiding over the extradition trial of liquor tycoon Vijay Mallya the next hearing date for which is expected in mid-March, had reserved her judgement in the Assange case last month.
"Once at court, a defendant will be given an opportunity to put an argument for reasonable cause. And that is when Assange will be able to place that before the court. I'm not persuaded that the warrant should be withdrawn, she noted today.
However, the hearing carried on as Assange's lawyers continued to argue further points.
"We are arguing four points. If we lose the first point then we will move on to argue the rest today," tweeted Assange, who will have the option to appeal against today's ruling.
At a previous hearing, she had expressed her concerns over the health of Assange, who has been holed up in the Ecuador embassy in London since he sought asylum there nearly six years ago.
Assange's lawyers had made a plea to cancel a pending Metropolitan Police arrest warrant against the campaigner after he failed to appear before court in June 2012. They argued that the only thing stopping him from leaving the building is a threat that he will be arrested by Scotland Yard for breaching bail conditions.
As proceedings in Sweden over rape allegations have now been dropped, they argued that the British arrest warrant had lost its purpose.
"I am particularly concerned that there are some medical issues. I am aware that he has depression, frozen shoulder and a terribly bad tooth," the judge had previously said.
The European Arrest Warrant on rape charges against Assange was lifted in May last year but Scotland Yard had confirmed a British arrest warrant dating from 2012 remains in place, which they were obliged to execute should the campaigner step out of the embassy.
Assange's barrister, Mark Summers, argued that there is not enough public interest for the case against him to continue.
The Australian national has previously expressed concern that if he leaves the Ecuadorian embassy in London he could end up being extradited to the US, where he fears facing the death penalty over allegations of revealing government secrets through WikiLeaks.
In a case summary handed to the court, Summers had said: "He has spent five and a half years in conditions which, on any view, are akin to imprisonment, without access to adequate medical care or sunlight, in circumstances where his physical and psychological health have deteriorated and are in serious peril."
His lawyers had handed the judge medical evidence as part of their claim to get his arrest warrant dropped.
Aaron Watkins, representing the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), said: "Assange has been released on bail in proceedings, he was under a duty to surrender to custody of the court and he failed to surrender at the appointed time, therefore a warrant stands."
Last month, Ecuador had granted Assange citizenship as another ring of protection for the Wikileaks chief. He is expected to leave for the South American country once he is allowed to step out of the embassy in Knightsbridge, central London.
Another route to secure his exit from the embassy under the garb of diplomatic immunity was also lost when he was denied diplomatic status by the UK government.