7:19am

Mon February 7, 2011
Europe

WikiLeaks' Assange In Court For Extradition Fight

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared in a London court Monday to begin his battle against extradition from Britain to Sweden over sex crimes allegations.

Assange, wearing a blue suit, was flanked by two prison guards as the hearing opened at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court. Celebrity supporters Jemima Khan and Bianca Jagger and politician Tony Benn also attended the start of the two-day extradition hearing.

Swedish officials want to question Assange about accusations of sexual misconduct by two women he met last year during a visit to Stockholm.

His legal team — which has taken the unusual step of publishing the entire defense online — insisted that there is no need for an extradition warrant because Assange is "ready, willing and able" to cooperate with Swedish authorities, and that he offered to go to Scotland Yard or the Swedish Embassy for interrogation.

Defense lawyer Geoffrey Robertson said Assange also is fighting extradition because Sweden is the only European Union country where rape trials are customarily held in secret. Assange's lawyers argued that their client cannot have a fair trial if the media and public are denied access. They also contended that the Swedish media and prosecution acted unlawfully — even with contempt — by revealing details of the investigation.

The British lawyer representing Sweden, Clare Montgomery, countered that Swedish trials are based on the principle that everyone deserves "a fair and public hearing." She said that in cases where evidence is heard in private, it will often be published after the trial and recited in the judgment.

Robertson said the WikiLeaks founder faces an allegation known in Swedish as "minor rape."

"That is a contradiction in terms," he said. "Rape is not a minor offense." He said Assange had had consensual sex with his two accusers.

Montgomery contested this, saying "the Swedish offense of rape contains the core element of rape ... the deliberate violation of a woman's sexual integrity through penetration."

American officials are trying to build a criminal case against WikiLeaks after it published a trove of leaked diplomatic cables and secret U.S. military files.

Assange's lawyers claim the Swedish prosecution is linked to the leaks and politically motivated. They pointed to the anger WikiLeaks has generated in the U.S. and noted how prominent American political figures have suggested the death penalty for people responsible for releasing the cables.

Preliminary defense arguments released by Assange's legal team claim "there is a real risk that, if extradited to Sweden, the U.S. will seek his extradition and/or illegal rendition to the USA, where there will be a real risk of him being detained at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere."

The document adds that "there is a real risk that he could be made subject to the death penalty" if sent to the United States. Under European law, suspects cannot be extradited to jurisdictions where they may face execution.

Swedish officials deny any American pressure in the case. They said that if Assange were in Swedish custody, he'd have legal protection against extradition to the U.S.

The hearing is due to end Tuesday. But Judge Howard Riddle could take several weeks to consider his ruling, which can be appealed by either side.

Larry Miller and NPR's David Greene reported from London for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.