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Julian Assange: Extradition to Sweden just a stop en route to US?

Julian Assange should be extradited to Sweden, a British judge ruled Thursday. His attorneys argued that the US will extradite him from there, putting him at risk of a death sentence.

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The sexual assault allegations against him stem from encounters he had with two women in Sweden last year. One deals with an instance in which he allegedly refused to use a condom despite the woman’s wishes. Another involves an incident in which he allegedly initiated sexual contact with a sleeping woman.

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Assange has said the charges are politically motivated. His lawyers have said that sending him to Sweden is merely a preliminary to sending him on to the US.

US prosecutors have said they are investigating all options at their disposal in terms of the Assange case. Assange could be prosecuted under the wide-ranging Espionage Act for possessing and disseminating classified information, for instance. Such a prosecution presents difficulties, however, since the US has generally refrained from pursing those who publish such materials. They would presumably have to believe they could justify charging Assange for something the New York Times and other US media arguably also engage in.

The alleged leaker of much of the WikiLeaks material, Army private Bradley Manning, is already in custody. Assange might also be charged with conspiring with Manning to unlawfully obtain and publish the material. Such a prosecution would have to show that Assange induced Manning’s actions in some profound manner, however. That might be difficult to prove, as well.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that federal prosecutors were having difficulty finding evidence that Assange had encouraged Manning. For this and other reasons, former US Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel Jack Goldsmith argues that the US should stop its legal pursuit of the WikiLeaks impresario.

Hauling Assange before a US judge is one thing. Convicting him is quite another, argues Goldsmith, now a Harvard Law professor, in a recent post on the “Lawfare” national security blog and in a Washington Post opinion piece.

“A failed attempt to prosecute Assange would be worse than not prosecuting him. It would make the United States look even more ineffectual than it does as a result of the leaks,” writes Goldsmith.

Assange may already be under indictment in the US. American grand jury proceedings are secret, and a grand jury could have already been empanelled to hear evidence against him.

Conversely, the US may be just as happy to see Assange tied up in Swedish court proceedings. That might occupy him for months without the US having to prosecute him at all.

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