Assange attorneys raises risk of unfair rape trial in Sweden

The WikiLeaks founder appeared in a London court for the first day of a two-day extradition hearing

Embattled WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared in a British court on Monday, where his attorney laid out a series of arguments why he should not be extradited to Sweden to face questions over sexual assault allegations.

Assange, wearing a dark suit and tie, entered Belmarsh Magistrates' Court in southeast London shortly before 10 a.m. as WikiLeaks supporters demonstrated outside holding placards and wearing orange jumpsuits similar to those of inmates at Guantanamo Bay.

Assange, 39, of Australia, has been accused of unlawful coercion, sexual molestation and rape, the accusations stemming from incidents with two women in Sweden in August. He says the encounters were consensual.

The hearing, expected to last two days, deals with the Swedish government's request that Assange be extradited to Sweden for questioning.

Geoffrey Robertson, Assange's attorney, argued that an extradition order is improper since Swedish authorities have not charged him with a crime but merely want to question him. Robertson argued that his client has made himself available to Swedish prosecutors, and that Assange has already been questioned once while he was still in Sweden after the incidents.

Clare Montgomery, representing the British government, said that although Assange has not been formally charged, the extradition is merited since Swedish prosecutors have "sufficient intention to prosecute."

The offenses that Assange has been accused of would not be considered offenses under British law, Robertson said. Sweden has further described the offenses as "minor rape," which carries a maximum sentence of four years there, Robertson said.

Robertson also attacked the Swedish legal system, where members of the public and press are excluded from sexual assault trials. "There is a real risk of a flagrant violation of his rights, Robertson said.

Assange turned himself in to U.K. police on Dec. 7 after a European Arrest Warrant naming him was issued in Sweden. He spent a week in custody before being granted bail on the condition he turn in his passport, wear an electronic monitoring device and check in regularly with police. He is now staying at a manor in the East of England owned by Vaughan Smith, founder of the journalism organization the Frontline Club.

Assange and his legal team have stated they believe the Swedish prosecutors' pursuit is tied to WikiLeaks' release of U.S. diplomatic cables, which angered the U.S. government but drew praise from others.

One prong of Assange's legal strategy contends that if he is extradited to Sweden, he could be extradited to the U.S., where he could be held in Guantanamo Bay, the detention facility established for enemy combatants in 2002.

Montgomery dismissed the point, saying "So far as those complaints are concerned, firstly they depend on a factual hypothesis that is not yet been established as being a real risk, namely the risk of extradition from Sweden to the U.S."

Even if the U.S. filed an extradition request, the U.K. government would have to give its consent, Montgomery said.

Some U.S. politicians have called for stern punishments for those responsible for the leaks. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee called for the death penalty for those who released the cables, and former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin said Assange should be hunted down just like al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com

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