Assange extradition trial begins

WikiLeaks founder appears at London court that will decide whether to extradite him to Sweden over sex crime claims.

    Assange was arrested in London last December after Sweden put out an international arrest warrant for him [AFP]

    Julian Assange, the founder of whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, has arrived at a London court to fight his extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over allegations of sex crimes.

    The two-day hearing at Belmarsh Magistrate's court, a high security building, began on Monday morning and will examine the Swedish arrest warrant issued for Assange in December last year.

    If the ruling goes against the Australian he will be able to appeal the decision at England's supreme court.

    Geoffrey Robertson, a human rights lawyer representing Assange, said his client was fighting extradition because Swedish trials involving alleged sex crimes are often held in secret.

    He said such a trial would be "a flagrant denial of justice ... blantantly unfair, not only by British standards but by European standards and indeed by international standards".

    Assange's defence team are also expected to argue that the extradition request is unacceptable, because he has not been charged with any crime.

    In documents released online by his legal team on Monday , Assange's lawyers said they will raise concerns that once extradited to Sweden, their client runs the risk of extradition or even illegal rendition to the United States, where they say he could face the death penalty.

    "There is a real risk that, if extradited to Sweden, the US 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," it said.

    However, Sweden has strongly denied pressure from the US in bringing the case against Assange.

    Celebrity backers

    The website founder is accused of sexual misconduct by two women he met in Stockholm, the Swedish capital, last year. He has denied the allegations.

    Laurence Lee, Al Jazeera's correspondent at the court, said the defence have tried to attack the allegations made by the two women, saying that "far from being rape, the sex was entirely consensual".

    "Lawyers for Assange have also attempted to undermine the reputation of the Swedish prosecutor who issued the arrest warrant, saying she didn't have the power to do so," he said, calling in a witness who said she was biased against men.

    However the prosecution said they believe Assange did use violence against the two women. They also sought to allay fears highlighted by the defence, saying Assange would not be extradited to the US if sent to Sweden.

    The ongoing case against the WikiLeaks founder has drawn widespread publicity and controversy, drawing an entourage of lawyers, supporters, protesters and journalists at his court hearings.

    Celebrity backers are leading rallies in London on Monday to support claims by Assange that the claims against him are politically motivated.

    Rights campaigner Jemima Khan, British politician Tony Benn, Bianca Jagger, and founder of the Frontline journalists' club Vaughan Smith are reported to be in the public gallery watching the case.

    Our correspondent said there's a "level of confidence" in Assange's defence team.

    "There's a really serious line-up of heavyweight human rights people, who've been going into the court building," he said. 

    "There's a lot of people behind him he had a big grin on his face when he walked in [to court] this morning.

    "In some ways they're actually hoping that they might get the whole thing thrown out by Tuesday."

    Appeal to Australia

    Assange was released on bail conditions late last year after spending one week in custody, on the conditions that he live under curfew at a friend's mansion in England's east and wear an electronic tag.

    However the conditions have still allowed him to conduct multiple media interviews, sign a reported $1.5m deal for a memoir, and pose for a magazine Christmas photo shoot dressed as Santa Claus.

    WikiLeaks has angered US officials and sparked controversy around the world after releasing secret information on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as slowly releasing hundreds of thousands of embarrassing US diplomatic cables.

    As the website's founder and leader, Assange faces a widening criminal probe in the United States and has made powerful enemies in Washington.

    Assange has appealed to Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, to help him return to his homeland.

    "Julia Gillard should be taking active steps to bring me home and protect our people," he said in a video message.

    A decision on Assange's extradition is not expected on Tuesday, when the hearing ends. The judge is expected to defer a ruling until later this month, under a term known as "reserving judgement".

    Al Jazeera is  not responsible for the content of external websites.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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