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WikiLeaks founder's arrest in Britain complicates efforts to extradite him

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Afghanistan, where he learned about the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. When asked about it, Gates said "that sounds like good news to me."

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One U.S. official said that could give the Justice Department time to decide whether - and how - to bring a criminal case in the United States.

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Allen Weiner, director of the program in international and comparative law at Stanford Law School, said that such an outcome "would be lucky for the U.S. government. If we don't want him to be running around the world doing more WikiLeaks type of activity, we will have caught a break if he ends up being arrested, tried and convicted of a completely unrelated crime."

Despite the closing net around the organization's international financial and technical operations, WikiLeaks representatives vowed that Assange's arrest would not interrupt the release of more documents.

"We are on 301, and there are 250,000 secret cables," Mark Stephens, one of Assange's attorneys, told reporters in London. He referred to WikiLeaks' latest cache of State Department documents, the most recent of which was released Tuesday night.

Nevertheless, Assange suffered a blow Tuesday when a judge in Britain, Howard Riddle, denied him bail despite the support and financial backing of noted British personalities, including celebrity heiress Jemima Kahn. While a media horde and a smattering of WikiLeaks supporters gathered outside the courthouse, Riddle said that not only is the nomadic Assange a flight risk, but he is potentially at risk of harm from "unstable persons" if released.

Appearing stoic in a dark-blue suit, Assange told the court that he declined to give fingerprints or DNA samples on the advice of his attorneys, according to accounts from the courtroom. Assange, the court heard, had spent two months living at the Frontline Club, a media watering hole near Paddington Station, though more recently he had been living with a female friend. When asked if he would willingly agree to the extradition, he said he would not.

Though his extradition trial next week could potentially take only a day, legal experts said it could also drag on for weeks. Assange's attorneys are stating their case that there is no need for him to go to Sweden to answer prosecutors' questions, arguing they could interview him through videoconferencing or come to London themselves.

Britain and Sweden, as members of the European Union, share an extradition treaty that is designed for rapid and streamlined dispatching of suspects. Proving a political motivation for extradition may be one way to fend off the Swedish request. But Riddle made it clear that the burden of proof would be high.

"This case is not, on the face of it, about WikiLeaks," Riddle said in the courtroom. "It is an allegation in another European country of serious sexual offenses alleged to have occurred on three separate occasions and involving two separate victims."

On Tuesday, British authorities offered additional details of the thus far murky allegations against Assange in Sweden. During a trip in August, when Assange was scouting out Sweden as a potential new base of operations, a woman alleged that he had unprotected sex with her despite her protests, and that he additionally used his body "to hold her down in a sexual manner."

A second woman, authorities said, alleged that Assange had unprotected sex with her while she was asleep.

Assange has yet to be formally charged; rather, he is still being sought only for questioning by Swedish authorities. If found guilty of the most serious of the allegations, he could face up to four years in jail under Swedish law.

faiolaa@washpost.com markonj@washpost.com

Markon reported from Washington. Special correspondent Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi in London contributed to this report.

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