Update: Assange attorneys raise risk of unfair rape trial in Sweden

Embattled WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared in a British court 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 surrendered 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 staying at a manor in the East of England owned by Vaughan Smith, founder of the journalism organization the Frontline Club.

In a brief statement outside the courtroom after the hearing, Assange said a "black box" has been applied to his life with the word "rape" on it. He also thanked his supporters.

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.

During the hearing, the defense called two witnesses, with retired Swedish Judge Brita Sundberg-Weitman testifying that she felt the legal process taken by Swedish prosecutors was irregular.

The second witness, former Swedish prosecutor Sven-Erik Alhem, testified that he followed the Assange allegations closely. He said he found that one of the alleged victims, referred to as "Miss A" used Twitter to remark positively about Assange after she had gone to police. The posted messages were deleted shortly thereafter, he said.

"It meant to me that the story told to the police was not consistent with the tweets," Alhem said.

The hearing is scheduled to continue on Tuesday.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com

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