Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange was on Wednesday sentenced to 50 weeks in jail by a United Kingdom court for breaching his bail conditions.
The 47-year-old had been found guilty of breaching the UK's Bail Act by Westminster Magistrates' Court in London last month after his arrest at the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he had sought refuge in 2012 following his bail over sexual assault allegations related to Sweden.
At a sentencing hearing at Southwark Crown Court on Wednesday, Judge Deborah Taylor told Assange it was difficult to envisage a more serious example of breach of bail conditions.
"By hiding in the embassy you deliberately put yourself out of reach, while remaining in the UK," she said.
"This was in terms of culpability a deliberate attempt to evade or delay justice... Firstly, by entering the Embassy, you deliberately put yourself out of reach, whilst remaining in the UK. You remained there for nearly seven years, exploiting your privileged position to flout the law and advertise internationally your disdain for the law of this country," the judge noted, in her strongly-worded sentencing remarks.
In a letter read to the court, Assange said he had found himself "struggling with difficult circumstances" and apologised to those who feel he had "disrespected" in any way.
"I apologise unreservedly to those who consider that I have disrespected them by the way I have pursued my case. This is not what I wanted or intended," his letter read.
"I found myself struggling with terrifying circumstances for which neither I nor those from whom I sought advice could work out any remedy. I did what I thought at the time was the best and perhaps the only thing that could be done – which I hoped might lead to a legal resolution being reached between Ecuador and Sweden that would protect me from the worst of my fears," he added.
His barrister Mark Summers, who read out the letter, later said his client was "gripped" by fears of rendition to the US over the years because of his work with whistle-blowing website Wikileaks.
"As threats rained down on him from America, they overshadowed everything," Summers said.
However, the judge dismissed the mitigating factors put forward and ruled that she was inclined to sentence Assange to the near maximum provided in UK sentencing guidelines for such cases.
"I reject the suggestion that your voluntary residence in the Embassy should reduce any sentence. You were not living under prison conditions, and you could have left at any time to face due process with the rights and protections which the legal system in this country provides," Judge Taylor said, adding that she had also taken medical evidence provided regarding his mental and physical condition.
Assange will be eligible for parole after serving half his sentence under licence conditions, conditional on any other legal proceedings against him.
As the WikiLeaks co-founder was taken away from the court to the holding cells, he raised a fist in his characteristic style to his supporters in the public gallery and they responded with raised fists and shouts of "shame on you" towards the court.
His case dates back to February 2011, when Westminster Magistrates Court in London ordered his extradition to Sweden to face allegations of sexual offending, including an allegation of rape. He was granted bail on conditions throughout your appeals against this order, which culminated in June 2012, when he entered the Ecuadorean Embassy seeking asylum.
A warrant for his arrest was issued by the same court after he failed to surrender before the court.
The Australian national now faces US federal conspiracy charges related to one of the largest leaks of government secrets.
The UK will decide whether to extradite Assange to the US in response to allegations that he conspired with former US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to download classified databases.
He faces up to five years in a US prison if convicted.