LONDON (Reuters) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is fighting a request from Swedish authorities for his extradition to face questioning in a sexual misconduct investigation. A hearing on the case began Monday before a London district judge.
Assange is asking the British courts to block his extradition to Sweden on the grounds that he cannot get a fair trial and could ultimately face the death penalty in the United States. Even if he loses in court this week, British authorities say, Assange still can make more legal appeals.
Assange and his supporters have claimed the Swedish inquiry is a smear or a conspiracy to shut down WikiLeaks. Assange’s lawyers have asserted in the past that the Swedish women who made allegations against him may be out for revenge and sought to cash in on their stories.
Here is an outline of key issues in the case:
Q: What’s the basis for the Swedish investigation?
A: Two Swedish women, Miss A. and Miss W., allege Assange engaged in sexual misconduct during a visit to Sweden in August.
According to translations of statements the women gave to Swedish investigators, Miss A. alleged that on August 14, Assange tried to have sex with her without a condom. Later he put on a condom and the couple had consensual sex but Miss A. claims it broke or was torn open by Assange.
Miss A. also claimed that on August 18, Assange exposed himself to her and rubbed against her, which Swedish authorities characterized as deliberate molestation.
In her statement to police, Miss W. said that on August 17, she and Assange had consensual sex with a condom. She alleges he later had sex with her without a condom while she was asleep.
Miss W.’s brother told investigators that his sister said “she didn’t want to report Julian if he went and got tested for sexually transmitted diseases.” A friend of the two women told police they told him that when they initially went to police they “didn’t intend to have Julian charged with anything.”
Q: Assange has complained that his name is now associated in most internet searches with the word “rape.” If his accusers acknowledge their encounters with Assange began consensually, why do people keep writing about a “rape” investigation?
A: Swedish authorities in numerous official communiques have described elements of the charges against Assange as sexual coercion, sexual molestation and “rape.” In Swedish law, there are three levels of seriousness of the rape charge; the allegations against Assange relate to the least-serious, which on conviction could lead to a maximum four years imprisonment. A prosecutor initially issued both rape and molestation charges against Assange. The rape charge was dropped the next day by a senior prosecutor but reinstated a few days later by one of Sweden’s highest-ranking prosecutors.
Q: What about claims that text messages undermine the women’s stories?
A: During bail proceedings last year, one of Assange’s lawyers told a London court his Swedish lawyer had been shown text messages in which his accusers indicated an interest in obtaining “money by going to a tabloid newspaper and were motivated by other matters including a desire for revenge.”
In a statement to investigators, a co-worker of Miss W. said that on the night of the alleged incident between Assange and her colleague, Miss W. had sent the co-worker “a lot of texts ...that were not positive. There had been bad sex and Julian had not been nice.”
The co-worker said Miss W. talked about going to a newspaper after Assange himself had spoken to the media, but that “this was just something she said and had no intention of doing.” The co-worker said Miss W. had been contacted by an American newspaper and had “joked that she should get well-paid.”
Q: What evidence is there of a “smear” campaign against Assange, as he and his lawyers have alleged?
A: Swedish officials and people close to Assange’s accusers deny any political motivation or that anyone -- particularly including the United States government -- has pressured them or influenced them to go after Assange.
While U.S. officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, have said WikiLeaks activities are under investigation, U.S. and British law enforcement sources say they are unaware of preparations for an imminent extradition case against Assange.
Legal experts say that there are serious obstacles to charging Assange under existing U.S. espionage laws, and that it is possible no American charges against him will ever be filed.
Q: What are the chances the British courts will agree with his appeal and block his extradition to Sweden?
A: British legal experts say that the European Arrest Warrant procedure under which the Swedes have requested Assange’s extradition was specially tailored to make challenges very difficult in specific cases, and that for this reason, appeals against the warrants are rarely successful.
An official of Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service, which is helping the Swedes present their case before British courts, said that if the judge hearing the case rejects his challenge to the extradition, Assange can appeal the case to the high court.
If those Judges also were to agree that the Swedish warrant for Assange is valid, then Assange can try to persuade Britain’s Supreme Court to hear a further appeal against extradition. But the Supreme Court would only take the case if it believes that a major legal principle is at stake.
If the Supreme Court declines to hear the case, Assange would have little grounds to pursue the case further to European justice tribunals and his extradition would likely go forward.
Reporting and writing by Mark Hosenball in London; Editing by Angus MacSwan