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

By Anthony Faiola and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 10:43 PM

LONDON - The detention Tuesday of Julian Assange, the elusive mastermind behind the WikiLeaks Web site, has pulled him from behind his laptop and into the international justice system.

But his potential extradition to face sexual assault allegations in Sweden could significantly complicate any U.S. attempt to quickly try him for releasing thousands of classified documents on the Internet.

Assange, who has been taunting world leaders by revealing sometimes embarrassing U.S. secrets, is now the center of an international tug of war, with his opponents calling him a dangerous agent against state secrecy and his supporters calling him a champion of the public's right to know.

British authorities were holding Assange without bail after the 39-year-old Australian surrendered at a London police station early Tuesday following weeks of living under the radar. He now faces a legal proceeding next Tuesday to fight extradition to Sweden for questioning in connection with the alleged sexual assaults, which he denies.

But to bring Assange to trial on American soil could be increasingly messy. Not only would the United States need to come up with creative charges that may be difficult to prove, it would also have to launch a laborious extradition request with Sweden, a country known for protecting asylum seekers.

In addition, if British authorities grant the Swedish request, Assange would be flown to a country that shares a significantly stricter extradition treaty with the United States. Swedish authorities said Tuesday that they would seriously weigh any request but noted that their treaty with the United States does not cover crimes that are political or military in nature.

"If and when a U.S. request comes, it must be built with some sort of evidence and would be complicated if the same act is not punishable under Swedish law," said Nils Rekke, head of the legal department at the Swedish prosecutor's office in Stockholm. It would also depend, he said, on whether any crime "is considered political or military, which are omitted" from the extradition treaty.

Assange has argued that the allegations against him are politically motivated.

U.S. officials have been investigating whether Assange, as head of WikiLeaks, can be charged for disseminating sensitive documents, including detailed accounts of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and embarrassing personal opinions of world leaders held by U.S. diplomats.

Given the broader extradition treaty Washington enjoys with London, analysts say that going after Assange while he is still on British soil would prove the surer path. Nevertheless, his arrest may not affect the pace of the investigation in the United States, according to U.S. officials and experts on the laws of extradition.

The U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria and the FBI are conducting what Justice Department officials have described as an aggressive criminal probe that sources familiar with the inquiry say could lead to charges under the Espionage Act. But prosecutions under the 1917 act are highly complex, and sources familiar with the investigation have said that no criminal charges are imminent.

U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the probe, indicated Tuesday that they were unlikely to quickly put together a criminal case just to seek Assange's extradition. That could mean that Assange is instead extradited to Sweden to face the sex crime charges there.

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.

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.

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

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