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Arguments in Assange extradition hearing end; ruling expected Feb. 24

By Anthony Faiola and Karla Adam,

LONDON - Attorneys for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange insisted in the closing arguments of his extradition hearing here Friday that the Swedish arrest warrant was not valid, adding that media leaks about the sexual assault allegations against their client had created a "toxic atmosphere" that ensured he could not get a fair trial in Sweden.

British prosecutors representing Sweden dismissed those arguments as "hyperbole" and said the seriousness of the allegations merited his dispatch to Stockholm. Addressing defense claims that Swedish officials had maligned their client in the press, prosecutor Clare Montgomery shot back, "Those who seek to fan the flames of a media firestorm can't be surprised when they get burnt."

Thus closed the first of what is likely to be a protracted set of hearings and appeals in Britain as the 39-year-old Australian battles the attempt to extradite him to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning for alleged sexual molestation, unlawful coercion and rape. Assange has denied the allegations.

After 21/2 days of arguments this week, Judge Howard Riddle is expected to issue his verdict Feb. 24. But given the various routes of appeal, he conceded the "inevitability" of a challenge, perhaps delaying a resolution for months.

The warrant hinges on allegations by two Swedish women with whom Assange had brief affairs in Stockholm last August. Both claim that specific encounters with Assange at one point became nonconsensual, with one saying he engaged in unwanted, unprotected sex with her while she was asleep, an act considered criminal rape in Sweden.

Assange has described the allegations as the words of jilted lovers. His defense contends, among other arguments, that text messages exist showing the women were plotting revenge.

Montgomery noted both women's claims that Assange forced sex without a condom, in one case using violence. Assange, she added, must go to Sweden for questioning, particularly given that DNA samples might be needed.

Before closing arguments, Robertson pressed for an extension of the hearing to more fully demonstrate the "toxic atmosphere" in Sweden against Assange. He cited comments this week by Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt disputing that Sweden's legal system, which holds rape cases behind closed doors, could not give Assange a fair trial.

The judge denied Robertson's request.

Adam is a special correspondent.

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