The storm over the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange intensified today as Diane Abbott claimed there could be “human rights” grounds not to extradite him to the US.
The shadow home secretary said he had been arrested for revealing “embarrassing information about the activities of the American military”.
Assange spent his first night in custody after being convicted of breaching bail following his dramatic arrest at the Ecuadorean embassy in London yesterday. He could be sentenced to up to 12 months in prison.
Assange is also facing extradition to the US on charges of conspiring to break into a classified government computer, a crime which attracts a maximum jail sentence of five years.
Australian-born Assange, 47, sought refuge in the embassy in Knightsbridge seven years ago to avoid extradition to Sweden over sexual assault charges that were eventually shelved.
The Swedish authorities are now considering whether to reopen their investigation. Assange denies the claims.
Today the political row over Assange’s future grew, with Ms Abbott defending his role in releasing secret US military and security cables as in the public interest.
Asked three times about sexual offence claims against him by two Swedish women, she said “the charges were never brought”.
Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Ms Abbott added: “We all know what this is about. It’s not the rape charges, serious as they are, it is about the Wikileaks and all of that embarrassing information about the activities the American military and security services made public.”
She also said: “We think there may be human rights grounds in relation to Assange.”
Ms Abbott’s remarks sparked anger with critics saying Assange had tried to escape justice by hiding in the embassy.
Anna Soubry, MP Change UK, tweeted: “Shame on you @HackneyAbbott your pal #Assange holed up in an Embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape & sexual assault.
“He’s no hero & the failure of @jeremycorbyn & #DianeAbbott to stand by the women who have made those allegations is disgraceful.”
Conservative deputy chairman James Cleverly tweeted: “Is the message to victims of sexual violence ‘you will be believed, unless it involves a left-wing icon?’ I really hope not.”
Victoria Atkins MP, minister for women, said: “Diane Abbott’s dismissal of rape charges speaks volumes about Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.”
Thousands of secret cables were released by Wikileaks in 2010, including unredacted names of personnel which the US claims puts lives at risk.
Ms Abbott and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn have said they do not want Assange to be extradited. They fear charges against him could be expanded and he could end up facing decades in prison. Mr Corbyn said the extradition of Mr Assange to the US for “exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan should be opposed by the British Government”.
Ms Abbott told the BBC: “If the Swedish government wants to come forward with those charges I believe that Assange should face the criminal justice system.
“But if you’re talking about the American extradition attempt which is less about the threat he poses to security in America and more about the embarrassment of the things he has revealed about the American military and security services.”
Labour MPs are also concerned that the sexual offence claims against Mr Assange risk being dismissed or played down.
Jess Phillips MP, a member of the Commons women and equalities committee, tweeted: “The fact that Assange has evaded charges of sexual violence and skipped bail should be opposed by the Labour Party. I’m sure it is, I’d like to hear it.”
And London-based QC Daphne Romney tweeted: "It is no good parroting "no charges were brought" because the Swedish system works differently to ours.
"Had he gone back to Sweden, he would have been charged. He may well have been acquitted. But we can't know that because he hid."
Assange was dragged out of the embassy by police yesterday after Ecuador abruptly withdrew its asylum. His aggressive attitude and poor personal hygiene was said to have antagonised embassy
His mother defended her son on Twitter, saying he was “sick and in pain from prolonged detention and torture”.
She also launched a furious attack on Theresa May and the judge who branded the Wikileaks founder a “narcissist” in a stream of tweets demanding her son is released.
In the US, Hillary Clinton said Assange should “answer for what he had done”, while President Trump, who declared “I love Wikileaks” during the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign when the organisation released emails damaging to Mrs Clinton, yesterday said he knows “nothing about Wikileaks” when asked about the arrest.