Julian Assange Begins Final Extradition Battle

The future of WikiLeaks' controversial founder — and of WikiLeaks itself — may hang in the balance.

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Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange outside the High Court in London December 5, 2011.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has kept busy while under house arrest in Britain, filming his own talk show for Kremlin-backed Russian TV and taping a guest appearance for The Simpsons‘ 500th episode. But on Wednesday, he had to tear himself away from such pursuits for the final chapter of his legal battle to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex crime allegations.

The 40-year-old Australian arrived at the Supreme Court in central London Wednesday morning for the two-day hearing. Assange has asked Britain’s highest court to overturn an earlier ruling that would have cleared the way for his removal to Sweden. If he loses, there is nothing Assange can do to prevent being handed over to Swedish authorities within 10 days of the verdict, lawyer and extradition expert Julian Knowles told The Guardian.

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How can Assange avoid such a fate? His appeal rests on a technicality: namely, that the Swedish public prosecutor who signed the warrant for Assange’s arrest does not have the legal power to seek his extradition. (In the U.K. and U.S., only judges can approve arrest warrants.)

A verdict is not expected for weeks, but legal experts interviewed by the Guardian, such as extradition lawyer Peter Caldwell of Dyers Chambers and Karen Todner at Kaim Todner Solicitors, say it’s unlikely the judges will side with Assange. Not only do British judges generally defer to other European countries’ judicial systems, but a ruling in his favor would set a precedent. “It would basically mean, until the law is rewritten, that extradition to Europe [would] become very difficult, if not impossible,” Knowles told the Guardian.

If Assange loses, he can still appeal through the European Court of Human Rights. This would not delay his extradition to Sweden, however, where a trial could begin in a matter of months if he is charged. Even if Assange avoids conviction in Sweden, other legal challenges may await him. The U.S. government has opened a grand jury investigation to decide whether to seek Assange’s extradition on espionage charges.

The silver-haired activist became a household name in 2010, when WikiLeaks released the video “Collateral Murder“, showing Iraqis being gunned down by an Apache helicopter in 2007. Later that year, the group dominated headlines with the release of secret U.S. diplomatic cables, which provided occasionally important (and often amusing) insights into global politics — including just what State Department diplomats thought of the world.

Assange’s anti-secrecy crusade has been overshadowed, however, by allegations that he raped one woman and sexually coerced another while visiting Stockholm to give a lecture in August 2010. Assange contends that the women’s accusations are politically motivated.

Since his arrest in London in late 2010, Assange has been cooling his heels at a wealthy supporter‘s country mansion outside London, enjoying the company of celebrity backers like socialites Jemima Khan and Bianca Jagger.

It remains to be seen how closely the fate of WikiLeaks, which has struggled to maintain funding, is tied to the fortunes of its founder.

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