WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, fighting extradition to Sweden over alleged sex crimes, walked free on bail from a British jail on Thursday protesting his innocence and pledging to continue exposing official secrets.
A triumphant but weary-looking Assange spoke to a crowd of journalists waiting in the snow outside Britain's High Court five hours after a judge said he could be released on 200,000 pounds (US$312,000) bail and under stringent conditions.
"It's great to smell fresh air of London again," Assange, illuminated by a blizzard of photographers' flashes, said.
"I hope to continue my work and continue to protest my innocence in this matter and to reveal as we get it, which we have not yet, the evidence from these allegations," said the 39-year-old Australian, flanked by his lawyers.
WikiLeaks has angered U.S. authorities by publishing part of a trove of 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, including details of overseas installations that Washington regards as vital to its security.
Assange thanked his lawyers, supporters who had posted the bail money, "all the people around the world who have had faith in me", and the British justice system "where if justice is not always an outcome, at least it is not dead yet."
Assange, wearing a dark suit and open-necked white shirt, brandished court papers titled "Swedish Judicial Authority vs Julian Paul Assange". He was then driven away in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Assange has spent nine days in a London jail after Sweden issued an arrest warrant for him over allegations of sexual misconduct made by two female WikiLeaks volunteers. Assange denies the accusations.
Shortly before Assange's release, his mother Christine Assange, who has flown over from Australia, said she was very happy with the decision. "I can't wait to see my son and to hold him close. I had faith in the British justice system to do the right thing," she said.
High Court Justice Duncan Ouseley upheld a lower court decision to release Assange on bail, rejecting an appeal by British prosecutors who had argued he was a flight risk.
As a condition of bail, Assange must live at Ellingham Hall, a country mansion and farm in eastern England that is the home of a former army officer and Assange supporter, Vaughan Smith.
Assange must also abide by a curfew, report to police daily, and wear an electronic tag.
Smith said his mansion, set in sprawling grounds, would offer Assange peace and security. "It's quite hard to get too close without trespassing," he told Sky News. "The Internet is not so good though."
Assange's lawyer Mark Stephens accused Swedish authorities of pursuing a vendetta against his client.
He said Assange would not go back to the cell in London's Wandsworth prison that he said had once been occupied by the writer Oscar Wilde, who spent part of his sentence for gross indecency there in the 1890s.
Celebrities such as journalist John Pilger, film director Ken Loach and socialite Jemima Khan are backing Assange.
Ouseley rejected prosecution arguments that Assange had a strong incentive to abscond, saying he "clearly does have some desire to clear his name because, if he were not to do so, the allegations would always be hanging over him."
A full extradition hearing is expected in early February.
Assange and his lawyers have voiced fears that U.S. prosecutors might be preparing to indict him for espionage over WikiLeaks' publication of the documents.
The New York Times reported that federal prosecutors were looking for evidence that Assange had conspired with a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst suspected of leaking classified documents in order to bring charges against him.
Internet activists have tried to sabotage the websites of organisations they believe have obstructed WikiLeaks, including Visa, MasterCard and the Swedish prosecutor's office.
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft, Keith Weir, Stefano Ambrogi and Michael Holden in London and Mia Shanley in Stockholm; editing by Tim Pearce)