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An artist's sketch depicts Julian Assange in court as he is sentenced for breaching bail. (AAP)
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for skipping bail seven years ago and holing up in the Ecuadorian embassy.
Judge Deborah Taylor said it was hard to imagine a more serious version of the offence as she gave the 47-year-old hacker a sentence close to the maximum of a year in custody.
She said Assange’s seven years in the embassy had cost British taxpayers 16 million pounds ($29 million AUD), and said he sought asylum as a “deliberate attempt to delay justice.”
The white-haired Assange stood impassively with his hands clasped while the sentence was read. He raised a fist defiantly as he arrived in a prison van, his hair cut and beard shaved since his arrest last month.
His supporters in the public gallery at Southwark Crown Court chanted “Shame on you” at the judge as Assange was led away.
The Australian secret-spiller sought asylum in the South American country’s London embassy in June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he was wanted for questioning over rape and sexual assault allegations.
Assange’s lawyer Mark Summers told a courtroom packed with journalists and WikiLeaks supporters that his client sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy because “he was living with overwhelming fear of being rendered to the US.”
He believed he could be “kidnapped at any time and brought forcibly to the US”, 9News Europe Correspondent Amelia Adams reported.
Mr Summers said Assange had a “well-founded” fear that he would be mistreated and possibly sent to the U.S. detention camp for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay.
Summers read a letter from Assange apologising for his behaviour in 2012 and saying “I did what I thought was best.”
“I found myself struggling with terrifying circumstances,” the letter said.
Assange was arrested April 11 after Ecuador revoked his political asylum, accusing him of everything from meddling in the nation’s foreign affairs to poor hygiene.
He faces a separate court hearing on Thursday on a US extradition request. American authorities have charged Assange with conspiring to break into a Pentagon computer system.
His Australian-based barrister, Greg Barns, said the 50-week sentence was “very tough”, but called for people not to lose sight of the impending extradition request.
“This is a very dangerous request because it involves the US seeking to extradite a person who was upholding the values of freedom of speech and freedom of the media,” he said.
“It must be resisted, it will be resisted,” he said of the extradition.
The 47-year-old’s family were concerned about how high the sentence was, according to Mr Barns.
“But in a sense it’s important the bail matter is now behind Julian so the focus can be on the very dangerous nature of the extradition request,” he said.
WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson says the sentence does little to engender confidence in the extradition fight.
Hrafnsson spoke to a crowd packed with journalists and supporters outside Southwark Crown Court after Assange’s sentenced was handed down.
“It is my view as editor of WikiLeaks that this sentencing here today is an outrage and it’s vindictive in nature,” Hrafnsson said.
“It doesn’t give us a lot of faith in the UK justice system for the fight ahead.
“To get a sentence only two weeks short of the maximum sentence is an outrage.”
Hrafnsson described the challenge of opposing extradition in dramatic terms.
“It will be a question of life and death for Mr Assange,” he said, calling it the “big fight”.
He added: “It’s also a question of life and death for a major journalist principle.”