LONDON—A lawyer for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said Monday that Swedish secrecy around rape proceedings and his client’s global notoriety mean there is a risk of a denial of justice if he is extradited to Sweden over sex crimes allegations.
Geoffrey Robertson said at a hearing that his client was fighting extradition because such trials are usually held in secret. A trial behind closed doors would be “a flagrant denial of justice … blatantly unfair, not only by British standards but by European standards and indeed by international standards,” Robertson said.
Rape trials are often held behind closed doors in Sweden to protect the alleged victims.
Assange is accused of sexual misconduct by two women he met during a visit to Stockholm last year. Defence lawyers are arguing that he should not be extradited because he has not been charged with a crime, because of flaws in Swedish prosecutors’ case — and because a ticket to Sweden could eventually land him in Guantanamo Bay or on U.S. death row.
The prosecutor representing Sweden, Clare Montgomery, opened by dismissing several key planks of the defence. She said Marianne Ny is a public prosecutor, dismissing defence claims that she is not authorized to issue a European Arrest Warrant.
She also said the rape allegation was an extraditable offence even under Sweden’s broad definition of the crime. Assange’s lawyers say he cannot be extradited because he has not been charged with a crime in Sweden and is only wanted for questioning — and that the allegation is not rape as understood under European and English law.
“The Swedish offence of rape contains the core element of rape … the deliberate violation of a woman’s sexual integrity through penetration,” she said.
American officials are trying to build a criminal case against the secret-spilling site, which has angered Washington by publishing 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.
Preliminary defence 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.”
Many legal experts say the Guantanamo claims are fanciful, and Sweden strongly denies coming under American pressure.
Nils Rekke, head of the legal department at the Swedish prosecutor’s office in Stockholm, has said Assange would be protected from transfer to the U.S. by strict European rules.
“If Assange was handed over to Sweden in accordance with the European Arrest Warrant, Sweden cannot do as Sweden likes after that,” he said. “If there were any questions of an extradition approach from the U.S., then Sweden would have to get an approval from the United Kingdom.”
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 also attended.
Robertson denied Assange had committed any sexual offences under English law. He said all relationships, long or short, contain “moments of frustration, irritation and argument. This doesn’t mean, in this country, that the police are entitled to sniff under the bedclothes.”
WikiLeaks sparked an international uproar last year when it published a secret helicopter video showing a U.S. attack that killed two Reuters journalists in Baghdad. It went on to release hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it later began publishing classified U.S. diplomatic cables whose revelations angered and embarrassed the U.S. and its allies.
The furor made Assange, 39, a global celebrity. The nomadic Australian was arrested in London in December after Sweden issued a warrant on rape and molestation accusations.
Released on bail on condition he live — under curfew and electronically tagged — at a supporter’s country mansion in eastern England, Assange has managed to conduct multiple media interviews, sign a reported $1.5 million deal for a memoir, and pose for a magazine Christmas photo shoot dressed as Santa Claus.
The full extradition hearing should shed light on the contested events of Assange’s trip to Sweden, where WikiLeaks’ data are stored on servers at a secure centre tunnelled into a rocky Stockholm hillside. Two Swedish women say they met Assange when he visited the country and separately had sex with him, initially by consent.
In police documents leaked on the Internet, one of the women told officers she woke up as Assange was having sex with her, but let him continue even though she knew he wasn’t wearing a condom. Having sex with a sleeping person can be considered rape in Sweden.
Assange is also accused of sexual molestation and unlawful coercion against the second woman. The leaked documents show she accuses him of deliberately damaging a condom during consensual sex, which he denies.
Assange’s lawyers complain they have not been given access to text messages and tweets by the two women which allegedly undermine their claims. They say text messages exchanged by the claimants “speak of revenge and of the opportunity to make lots of money.”
Whatever happens in court this week, Assange’s long legal saga — and his stay in the tranquil Norfolk countryside — is far from over. The extradition hearing is due to end Tuesday, but Judge Howard Riddle is likely to take several weeks to consider his ruling — which can be appealed by either side.