IN LONDON A gaggle of journalists recently gathered at a London press club, eagerly awaiting Julian Assange. After embarrassing the U.S. government with a cache of secret cables, he was about to stand beside a Swiss whistleblower whose data could expose the inner workings of tax havens and the dodgers who love them.
But before Assange arrived, the moderator issued a plea to the media: Please refrain from any questions "about Swedish girls."
The incident at London's Frontline Club illustrated how the 39-year-old Australian has struggled in recent weeks to keep the emphasis on WikiLeaks and its explosive disclosures even as he fights a personal battle against sexual assault allegations in Sweden. That battle will bring Assange to a London courtroom Monday for the start of an extradition hearing that will crystallize the WikiLeaks dichotomy.
On one side, there is WikiLeaks the organization, whose expanding mission is being credited with everything from striking fear in the hearts of tax evaders to helping fan the flames of protest in the Arab world. On the other is Assange himself, its controversial leader whose personal character is threatening to overshadow the organization's work.
Even as he remains partly confined to the gilded cage of a friend's Georgian mansion for the duration of his legal battle, Assange is more combative than ever, his complex relationship with the media becoming increasingly stormy. Assange's bond has soured with two of the news organizations with which he once allied himself, the New York Times and the Guardian. Last week, two journalists from the Guardian published a book that at times depicts Assange as callous and single-minded. His embittered former No. 2, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, is also going to press this month with his own tell-all book.
And then there are the allegations against him. Although his two-day hearing will focus more on the technicalities of extradition, insiders expect a fairly detailed account of the allegations lodged by two Swedish women. Those allegations - Assange is wanted only for questioning, and no charges have been filed - came in August after he visited Sweden. During that trip, he had what all sides agree was initially consensual sex with the two women. But both women say the encounters later became non-consensual.
Assange's defense argues that some of the allegations - including that he continued having sex after a condom broke despite the protests of his partner and that he had sex with a woman while she was asleep - would not be classified as high crimes in Britain and, therefore, are not extraditable offenses.
Assange "takes these allegations very seriously," said Jennifer Robinson, one of his attorneys.
"He insists he is innocent and that this was consenting sex between adults," Robinson said. "The box ticked is rape, but Swedish rape law is different than Britain rape law, which is based on consent."
In a December interview with the BBC, Assange, who did not respond to requests for an interview for this article, seemed to dismiss the allegations. After later coming in contact with each other, the women, he said, probably "found out that they were mutual lovers of mine and they had unprotected sex and they got into a tizzy about whether there was a possibility of sexually transmitted diseases."
He added that it was a "ridiculous thing to go to the police about."
Assange's attorneys have also suggested the allegations are politically motivated, part of an elaborate conspiracy involving Stockholm and Washington that would ultimately lead to his extradition to the United States.
But while U.S. officials are probing possible charges, none has been filed against him. Additionally, legal scholars say any U.S. bid for extradition would probably be easier to carry out if Assange were still in Britain, a nation that maintains a far more sweeping extradition treaty with the United States than Sweden does.
Although the hearing is scheduled to conclude Tuesday, experts say the case could drag on for months.
"In terms of timing, he could be here until the summer," said Joshua Rozenberg, a British legal analyst. The judge "is likely to wait two to three weeks to issue his verdict in writing because he knows all are watching. Then, either party can, and almost certainly will, appeal the decision to the High Court."
In the meantime, the spotlight continues to shine on Assange. In the new book "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy," for instance, Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding recount an exchange with Assange in July at a Moroccan restaurant in London. When pressed by journalists to redact the names of informants mentioned in Afghan war documents then about to be released by WikiLeaks, Assange initially refused.
"Well, they're informants," he said, according to the journalists' account. "So, if they get killed, they've got it coming to them. They deserve it."
Although Assange later agreed to redactions, the incident gave the journalists pause.
"Silence fell around the table," Leigh said in an interview. "We were astonished that Julian could be so callous but also so naive. Not redacting those names didn't begin to grapple with the complexities of life in Afghanistan. He didn't seem to get that."
But Assange, who has signed a book deal of his own, remains unbowed. "You are in a very beneficial position if you can be martyred without dying," he told BBC 4.
Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.