WikiLeaks Founder Returns to Court to Fight Extradition

Resisting a Swedish attempt to extradite him to face accusations of sexual misconduct, Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, returned to court for a second day on Tuesday after his lawyers said he would not receive a fair trial if he were sent to Sweden. The two-day hearing is a culmination of an acrimonious public battle with prosecutors in Sweden who have sought since September to question Mr. Assange, 39, about accusations made against him in Stockholm last summer by two women who volunteered for WikiLeaks, one in her early 30s and another in her mid-20s. One contends that he initiated unprotected sex with her while she was asleep, the morning after she had taken him to her apartment for the night.

Wearing a dark blue suit, Mr. Assange sat alone on Tuesday in an expansive glass-walled defendant’s box, a space that has been occupied by notorious Islamic extremists during terror trials. The hearing was the result of the Swedish prosecutors’ action in early December in issuing a European arrest warrant for Mr. Assange, a step that led to his being jailed for nine days and then released on bail. Mr. Assange’s lead lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, told the court on Monday that there would be “a real risk of flagrant denial of justice” if the Swedish government succeeded in securing his extradition, because his case would probably be heard in closed sessions, with no reporters or other outsiders present, in keeping with Swedish policy in sex cases. In such circumstances, he said, even if Mr. Assange were to be acquitted, “the stigma would remain.” (New York Times) Robertson added that “you cannot have a fair trial where the press and the public are excluded from the court.” (CBC)

One defence witness, Sven-Erik Alhem, a former Swedish prosecutor, expressed surprise on Tuesday that Marianne Ny, the Swedish prosecutor who requested Mr. Assange’s extradition, had not questioned him in Britain, where arrangements are in place for cooperation between law enforcement agencies of different countries. But Mr. Alhem also told the court that, if he were Mr. Assange, he “would have gone to Sweden immediately to give my version of events.” (New York Times) Mr. Alhem said it was “quite peculiar” that the authorities did not get Mr. Assange to give his version of the events before seeking his arrest. He said that Ms. Ny “should have been made sure Mr. Assange was able to give his version of events in detail.” He added that, “It would be very important to me to clear my name given I was innocent.” (BBC)

The second witness, Mr. Assange’s Swedish lawyer, Bjorn Hurtig, said the alleged crime was downgraded from “rape of the normal degree” to rape of a lesser degree following discussions with Sweden’s Court of Appeal. He told the court that the case had been plagued by leaks to the press, with one prosecutor even breaking the law on confidentiality. “The result was if you, a couple of hours after this happened, went on to the Internet and entered Julian’s name and ‘rape’, you got two to three million hits,” he said. (BBC) Mr. Hurtig said his client had been authorized to leave the country by the prosecutor, contrary to the suggestion that Mr. Assange fled when he learned he was to be questioned.

Marianne Ny even told the lawyer at first that no police interrogation was planned, the court heard. The court was also told that investigators have collected around 100 messages to and from Mr. Assange’s two alleged victims that his lawyers say undermine the case against him. Mr. Hurtig said the texts indicate the women expected to be paid, intended to get “revenge” and wanted to contact newspapers to “blast” his client’s reputation. (BBC) But he said prosecutors in Stockholm have not let him have copies, making it impossible for Assange to receive a fair trial.

The prosecution then read a statement from Ms. Ny in which she outlined several months of efforts to contact Mr. Assange for an interview. He was told, she said, that “it would be possible for him to attend an interview discretely.” (New York Times) Still, she said, he often could not be contacted, even by his own lawyers, and refused to return to Sweden despite promising to do so on several occasions. She did not feel, she said, it was appropriate to interview him by telephone or video link as he eventually suggested.

Outside the court on Monday, Mr. Assange told the throngs of reporters, photographers, antiwar  protesters, curious passers-by and wide-eyed fans who have become his traveling entourage in recent months that “a black box has been applied to my life, and on the outside of that black box has been written the word ‘rape’.” He added, “Now, as a result of an open court process, that box is being opened.” (New York Times) “I hope over the next day we will see that that box is, in fact, empty and has nothing to do with the words that are on the outside of it,” Assange added. (CNN)

Mr. Assange has denied any wrongdoing, saying that he had consensual sexual relations with each of the Swedish women. He has described the sexual abuse accusations as “lies,” and implied that the real origins of the case were in a smear campaign by unidentified forces bent on punishing him for WikiLeaks’ actions in obtaining hundreds of thousands of classified United States government and military documents and posting large numbers of them on the Internet.

It is an argument that has found favor among celebrity supporters like the socialites Bianca Jagger an Jemina Khan, and a veteran leftist politician, Tony Benn, who were in the public gallery for the hearing, a silent vanguard for the wide support the WikiLeaks founder has attracted around the world. Some supporters have already nominated him for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

Mr. Assange’s calm demeanor contrasted with the hubbub outside. The hearing took place at Woolwich Crown Court amid a bleak landscape in southeast London, overlooked by Belmarsh prison, one of Britain’s largest maximum-security centers. Leaving the court, Mr. Assange said, “Our witnesses were brought from Sweden, where my lawyer was brought from Sweden and expensively cross-examined. Where is the equality in this case? We see an unlimited budget in Sweden and the UK being spent on this matter and my rather limited budget being spent in response.” (BBC)

“Today, we have seen a Hamlet without the princess – a prosecutor who has been ready to feed the media within information, but has been unwilling to come here,” Assange attorney Mark Stephens told reporters outside the courtroom. Stephens called on Ms. Ny to attend the extradition hearing when it resumes on Friday and “subject yourself to the cross-examination.” (CBC)

Swedish prosecutors have insisted that Mr. Assange be questioned in Sweden – and not at the Swedish Embassy in London or by a telephone or video link that would allow him to remain in Britain, as his lawyers have suggested. His defence team said on Monday that he feared that if he were forced to return to Sweden that he would be subjected to being extradited in the United States, followed by incarceration in the Guantánamo Bay detention center and that he might even face the death penalty. Although American officials have spent months reviewing the damage done by the leaks and considering possible criminal actions against Mr. Assange, he has not been indicted for making confidential documents public.

The Swedish warrant lists the offenses under investigation as “unlawful coercion, sexual molestation and rape.” (New York Times) The accusations refer to relatively minor offenses under a complex Swedish system that distinguishes among levels of rape. The charges in Mr. Assange’s case are in the least serious of the three categories. A conviction in that category carries no minimum sentence and a maximum of four years’ imprisonment.

When asked whether Mr. Assange could be at risk of being transferred to US if extradited, Mr. Alhem said, “My understanding is there is not a risk of being extradited to the US but there are exceptions, which I’m not aware of and can’t comment on. I believe it’s impossible Mr. Assange could be extradited to the US without a complete media storm.” (BBC)

Lawyers for Mr. Assange said they did not expect a decision by the district court judge hearing the case, Howard Riddle, before next week. Either side – the British lawyers representing the Swedish prosecutors or Mr. Assange’s legal team – is likely to appeal whatever decision the judge makes, and Mr. Assange’s lawyers have hinted that they might carry the case to European courts, which could drag out a decision for months or even years. The proceedings will resume on February 11 for an extra half day.

Assange is free on $310,000 bail while he fights extradition. British courts have ordered him to stay at a supporter’s mansion outside London each night, to wear an electronic tag that monitors his location and to check in daily with police.

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