Lawyer: Julian Assange Was in Hiding — from Sarah Palin

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Assange leaves Belmarsh Magistrates Court in London on Feb. 8, 2011

Andrew Winning / Reuters

Julian Assange could not be reached by the Swedish authorities who are investigating sex-crimes allegations against him because the WikiLeaks founder had become spooked by “death threats” issued by American politicians, including Sarah Palin, Assange’s Swedish lawyer told a British court on Tuesday.

One of the central mysteries of Assange’s extradition hearing in London this week is why the 39-year-old Australian is facing extradition at all. Why didn’t he voluntarily return to Sweden to face questioning in the weeks following the accusations by two Swedish women?

(More on See a TIME video interview with Julian Assange.)

After allowing Assange to leave Sweden last September, investigators sought him later that month for questioning, but he was no longer in the country. A European warrant was issued by Swedish authorities, and he was arrested in London.

Giving evidence in London, Assange’s Swedish attorney Bjorn Hurtig said his client could not be reached by the authorities because he had gone into hiding due to fears that he would be killed by forces from the U.S.

“There were a lot of threatening statements made by politicians in the U.S. … you should keep in mind that during this period I’ve known Julian, he has actually received death threats in the media … that he should be given the death sentence,” Hurtig said, using an interpreter, in court on Tuesday. “As a consequence of this, Julian was duly worried.”

Hurtig’s statement is part of an effort by Assange’s lawyers to fight extradition to Sweden on the grounds that doing so would violate Assange’s human rights by putting him at risk of execution. They support this claim by citing British media reports that U.S. Republican politicians Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee have called for him to be executed. Palin is reported to have said that Assange “should be hunted down like al-Qaeda.”

(More on See TIME’s December 2010 cover story on Julian Assange.)

Assange’s lawyers have said that if the WikiLeaks boss is taken to Sweden, the Swedes could “bow to U.S. pressure” and allow his further extradition to the U.S. or “naively” rely on diplomatic assurances and allow Assange to be removed from Sweden. In interviews, Assange’s lawyers have even suggested that their client could face extraordinary rendition and end up in Guantánamo Bay.

Now, we at NewsFeed find it a bit far-fetched to imagine the CIA storming across the tarmac at Stockholm’s cozy Arlanda Airport with dark hoods, powerful sedatives and a private jet at the ready. Nor do we find it likely that Sweden, a country with no death penalty, would extradite Assange to the U.S. Indeed, Swedish prosecutors have assured Assange’s human rights if his extradition to Sweden is successful, and on Tuesday they reinforced that “as a matter of law and practice” he could not be subsequently sent to the U.S. But then, can we really blame Assange for being afraid of Palin?

The hearing continues on Friday. (via AAP)

More on See pictures of WikiLeaks’ bunker.