WikiLeaks' Assange in UK court extradition appeal

LONDON Mon Jul 11, 2011 6:30pm EDT

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks during a news conference at the Frontline Club in London May 10, 2011. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks during a news conference at the Frontline Club in London May 10, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

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LONDON (Reuters) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will begin his appeal on Tuesday against his extradition from Britain to Sweden for questioning over allegations of sexual misconduct.

The 40-year-old Australian computer expert will take his legal battle to the High Court in London for a two-day hearing after losing an initial challenge to the extradition order in February.

Swedish prosecutors want to question Assange about allegations of sexual assault made by two women, both WikiLeaks volunteers, in Sweden last August. He denies the allegations.

He was arrested in December around the same time as his whistle-blowing website began publishing a cache of more than 250,000 secret U.S. diplomatic cables which hurt the U.S. government and caused a media sensation.

A judge originally dismissed arguments by Assange's defense team that he would not get a fair trial in Sweden and that it would ultimately violate his human rights.

Assange has said he believes the Swedish case is politically motivated.

The U.S. government is examining whether criminal charges can be brought against Assange over the leaks. Assange fears extradition to Sweden could be a stepping-stone to him being taken to the United States.

His lawyers have in the past argued he could be sent to the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba or even face the death penalty.

Even if the High Court upholds the extradition request, Assange could take his battle to Britain's Supreme Court, the country's highest, though this can only be done on a point of law considered to be of general public interest.

The Supreme Court ruling marks the end of the process. Assange has hired a new legal team to represent him after his previous team, which included prominent British attorney Mark Stephens, was seen as too confrontational.

Replacing Stephens is prominent human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce.

She has represented accused militants in high-profile cases, including former prisoners held by the United States at Guantanamo, and the "Guildford Four," a group of Irish citizens whose conviction in an alleged IRA bomb plot was overturned after they spent years in prison.

An assistant for Peirce at her office Birnberg Peirce and Partners told Reuters the firm would not be making any comment prior to the appeal.

However, in an emailed statement the firm said "it would be highly unusual" for the High Court to pronounce a decision over the appeal on the same day. "It is normal for a written judgment to be given," it said.

After a brief spell in prison following his arrest by British authorities at Sweden's request, Assange was released on bail and has been living under strict court-imposed restrictions at a country mansion in eastern England.

Despite the bail conditions, which include wearing an electronic ankle tag, reporting to police daily and respecting a curfew, Assange celebrated his 40th birthday on Sunday.

British media reported that he threw a party at the estate and more than 100 guests, including celebrities and high-profile supporters, were invited.

(Reporting by Stefano Ambrogi; editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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