Monday, February 7, 2011

Assange lawyers cast doubt on charges at extradition trial in London

Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 7, 2011; 10:40 AM
LONDON - The extradition trial of Julian Assange, the mastermind behind the WikiLeaks Web site, opened on Monday with the 39-year old Australian placidly watching from the plaintiff's bench as his lawyers argued against sending him to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations.
With his celebrity supporters present in the courtroom, including Bianca Jagger and the socialite Jemima Khan, Assange, wearing a dark suit and purple tie, scribbled down notes and settled in for what is set to be the two-day hearing.
British lawyers representing Swedish prosecutors argued for Assange's extradition over allegations of rape, molestation and unlawful coercion lodged by two women who entered into brief physical relationships with Assange in Sweden last August.
Assange has denied said any wrongdoing, insisting he had consensual sex with both women.
Geoffrey Robertson, one of Assange's lead attorneys, argued that Assange could not receive a fair trial in Sweden in part because rape cases there are heard in private. Conducting such a case in secret, without press and the public present, he argued, "risks a flagrant denial of justice."
Assange's defense also maintains that some of the allegations against their client - including that he continued having sex after a condom broke despite the protests of his partner and that he had sex with a woman while she was asleep - would not be classified as high crimes in Britain and, therefore, are not extraditable offenses.
Robertson argued Monday morning that the Swedish crime of "minor" rape, one of the charges Assange faces, is defined in a way that does not amount to rape in any other European country. "We invite the court to say this is not rape as it is accepted in European law," he said.
Yet Clare Montgomery, representing the Swedish prosecutors, countered that the charges included allegations that would be defined in Britain as rape. "Mr. Assange had sexual intercourse with her and exploited the fact that she was asleep," Montgomery said of one of the alleged victims. Such a crime, she said, would also be prosecuted in Britain.
Given the broad laws governing extradition between European Union nations - which are structured to allow expedited extraditions - experts say Assange faces a hard-fought case.

In addition to questioning whether the Swedish charges would have merit in a British court, however, Assange's lawyers are posing multiple other objections. They say Sweden should not have requested Assange's extradition because prosecutors there have not yet officially filed criminal charges against their client. Instead, prosecutors issued a warrant based on their desire to question Assange in connection with the allegations.
They have also suggested that the case is politically motivated, one of the rare justifications for refusing inter-European extradition requests. The defense asserts that the allegations against Assange amount to a conspiracy that would end with Assange being extradited to the United States to face charges for the leaking of secret State Department documents on the Internet.
The lawyers acting on behalf of Swedish prosecutors dismiss the conspiracy theory as false and unfounded.
Though the hearing is set to conclude on Tuesday, most analysts believe the judge will not issue a written verdict for a week or two. After that decision comes down, both parties will have the right to appeal to Britain's high court in a process that could drag on for months.
On Monday, about a dozen Assange backers gathered outside the Belmarsh high-security prison, where the court is being held. Some were wearing orange Guantanamo Bay prison outfits, while others wielded placards reading "don't shoot the messenger," and "the truth has been raped."
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