Assange denied bail: now can he avoid extradition?

Julian Assange

Briefing: The charges against WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange – and his legal options

BY Tim Edwards LAST UPDATED AT 09:02 ON Thu 9 Dec 2010

Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, has been denied bail after appearing in court over alleged sexual offences. Assange is fighting extradition to Sweden, which issued a European arrest warrant for his arrest after complaints were made against him by two women.

Assange says the charges have no basis and believes the United States is behind the legal moves against him, because his website is responsible for leaking thousands of documents relating to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the recent top secret US embassy cables.  

What is Assange accused of?Julian Assange visited Sweden in August this year to speak at a seminar on ‘War and the role of the media’ in Stockholm. While there, he had consensual sex with two women, including the person whose flat he was staying at. The accusations levelled at Assange, one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one count of rape, appear to derive from his use or otherwise of condoms.

The charges against Assange were dropped by the prosecutor shortly after they were brought. However, on September 1 another prosecutor reopened the case after the women’s lawyer, a politician with an interest in gender equality issues, appealed against the decision not to proceed.

After months of indecision, Sweden finally issued a European arrest warrant this week, forcing the Metropolitan police to take action against Assange, who was staying in London.

WHAT NOW? Assange has been refused bail and, unless an appeal against that decision is successful, will be held until his extradition hearing, which must take place within three weeks.

In a letter to the Guardian today, Women Against Rape expressed surprise at the courts decision, saying that the granting of bail in rape cases is routine in the UK. They point out: "There is a long tradition of the use of rape and sexual assault for political agendas that have nothing to do with women's safety."

Under the terms of the European arrest warrant, Assange's extradition – if it is enforced – must occur within 90 days.

Will the Swedes be able to extradite Assange?
Raj Joshi, an extradition specialist formerly with the Crown Prosecution Service, told the Guardian that Sweden will find it difficult to extradite Assange.

The fact that Swedish prosecutors are yet to formally lay charges against Assange will damage their case. Joshi said: "Assange's team will argue, how can the conduct equal an extraditable offence if the prosecutor doesn't think there is enough evidence to charge, and still has not charged."

Assange's lawyer, Mark Stephens, has said his client is yet to be directly informed of the details of the charges against him. It was assumed that Sweden had charged Assange for the European Arrest Warrant to be valid. 

Stephens said last month: "I've worked with third world countries and authoritarian regimes where there has been more of an attempt at a fair process."

Other options open to his legal team include appeals on the basis of his human rights, for example the risk that he may not get a fair trial because of his political opinions.

Assange cannot appeal on the strength or otherwise of the case against him – a point highlighted by UKIP MEP Gerard Batten, who told the BBC: "I don't know of the quality of the evidence in Assange's case but it does seem that he is involved in political turmoil and intrigue and there are a lot of people keen to shut him up and there is nothing a court in the UK can do to look at the evidence before they extradite him."

Can the US extradite Assange?Discussions have already taken place between Sweden and the US regarding the transfer of Assange into American hands, according to diplomatic sources. Sweden has an extradition treaty with the United States, but Washington could not apply for Assange's transfer until the rape charges are dealt with.

But it is difficult to see how a legal extradition from the US to Sweden could be argued. There is little chance of a successful case if the alleged offence is "political".

The US attorney general has said he might try and prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act – but that is not covered by the extradition treaty with Sweden.

IS AUSTRALIA HELPING ASSANGE?Australia has to provide consular assistance to Assange, who is a citizen, but given the public pronouncements of the country's attorney general, Robert McClelland and prime minister Julia Gillard, it had been thought he could expect little more than this.

McClelland has said he "will support any law enforcement action that may be taken" against Assange - including by the US. Gillard has accused Assange of "illegal" conduct.

Assange wrote a damning editorial for the Australian, published on the day he was arrested, in which he observed that "the powers of the Australian government appear to be fully at the disposal of the US".

However, there are signs that Australia is now softening its stance. foreign minister Kevin Rudd has offered a defence of sorts for Assange, saying: "Mr Assange is not himself responsible for the unauthorised release of 250,000 documents from the US diplomatic communications network. The Americans are responsible for that."

Where does WikiLeaks stand now?Even if WikiLeaks can be closed down, it is basically impossible to ever remove the documents the site has so far released. By the time Assange was arrested today, there were 748 'mirror sites' available across the web, all of which contain the US embassy cables so far released.

What about the site’s funding?
The most serious problem for WikiLeaks at the moment could be that its sources of funding are drying up. Paypal has frozen the website’s account and Mastercard and Visa are refusing to process payments made to the organisation, which functions solely on donations from supporters.

Currently, the only ways to give money to WikiLeaks are a bank-to-bank transfer or to post a cheque.

Despite this, WikiLeaks is defiant. The organisation’s Twitter feed says: “Today's actions against our editor-in-chief Julian Assange won't affect our operations: we will release more cables tonight as normal." · 

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