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

February 11, 2011

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

British prosecutors representing Sweden, however, dismissed those arguments as "hyperbole," arguing Assange should be dispatched to Stockholm for questioning on the serious allegations against him. 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."

And 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 attempts to extradite him to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning for alleged sexual molestation, unlawful coercion and rape.

After 21/2 days of arguments this week, Judge Howard Riddle is expected to issue his verdict when the parties reconvene in court Feb. 24. But given the various routes of appeal, even Riddle conceded the "inevitability" that his ruling would be challenged, perhaps delaying a final resolution for months.

Assange, who looked relaxed in a purple tie as he heard the closing arguments in the southeast London courtroom, has denied the allegations. He is living under strict bail conditions in the regal country estate of a friend as he fights the extradition request.

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 that text messages exist showing the women were plotting revenge.

On Friday, however, one of the star characters in Assange's legal play was someone absent from the courtroom - the Swedish prosecutor herself, Marianne Ny. Assange's attorneys have painted her as an overzealous feminist with a "bias against men" who dared to issue an extradition request before criminal charges have been filed against their client. That, along with defense assertion that the allegations would not be considered crimes in Britain, should invalidate the warrant, they said. They also said Ny has rebuffed offers by Assange to be questioned in Britain.

"A political element is plainly in this case in Sweden and where it will end we do not know," said Assange attorney Geoffrey Robertson.

Montgomery countered those arguments, specifically addressing both women's claims that Assange forced sex without a condom. She noted that at least one of the women claims Assange used "violence" to continue relations without a condom. Assange, she added, must physically go to Sweden for questioning, particularly given that DNA samples might be needed.

She also wryly noted that the defense has appeared to drop its argument that Sweden was colluding to send Assange to the United States if U.S. officials charge him with crimes related to the release of secret documents on the Internet.

"I take it from the absence of any sound bites about Guantanamo Bay and torture ... that there is no prospect in reality in law of extradition to the United States and we may well put that point to bed," she said.

Before closing arguments, Robertson argued for an extension of the hearing to more fully demonstrate the "toxic atmosphere" in Sweden against Assange. He cited comments about Assange this week made by Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, which Robertson claimed showed the WikiLeaks mastermind had become "Public Enemy No. 1" in that country. The judge, however, denied the request.

In his comments, Reinfeldt had dismissed the argument that Sweden's legal system, which holds rape cases behind closed doors, could not give Assange a fair trial.

"Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing you hear when [a lawyer] trying to defend a client gives a condescending description of other countries' legal systems," he said. "But everyone living in Sweden knows that is not in line with the truth."

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