Why Britain is likely to send WikiLeaks' Assange to Sweden on rape charges

The legal team of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may fight his potential extradition to Sweden on human rights grounds, but it's unlikely Mr. Assange will avoid it, say legal experts.

Stefan Rousseau/PA/AP
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is driven into Westminster Magistrates Court in London on Dec. 7 after being arrested on a European Arrest Warrant. Assange is appearing at the court for his extradition hearing for rape charges in Sweden.

A shadow hung over the future of the WikiLeaks website Tuesday after its founder and guiding force, Julian Assange, surrendered to British police as part of a sex-crimes investigation in Sweden.

The Australian, who was the subject of a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) issued by Swedish authorities, denies allegations that he sexually assaulted two women and has hinted that the charges are part of a smear campaign by those eager to halt his website's ongoing release of secret US government documents.

The early indications are that his legal team will contest his extradition on grounds such as the failure of Swedish authorities to provide him with adequate details of the warrant issued there.

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The team may also fight the extradition on human rights grounds – including that Assange could be unfairly deprived of his liberty in Sweden and that the massive media attention would make it even more difficult for him to have a fair trial.

But it's unlikely that Assange will avoid extradition, say legal experts. And the legal process in Britain is likely to be rapid, thanks to the EAW system, which was introduced in 2004 to allow for the fairly prompt transfer of suspects from one European country to another.

“I know that there is a suggestion that the warrant is being misused in some way for political purposes against [Assange], but I can’t really see any evidence of that at face value,” says Mark Mackarel, a lecturer at Dundee Law School in Scotland and an expert in the EAW. “I don’t doubt that there are all sorts of efforts to undermine WikiLeaks, even to the extent that individuals are being leaned on to inconvenience or make life difficult for [Assange], but I think that the actual surrender process under the EAW is quite a transparent one."

Mr. Mackarel says Sweden would have a lot to lose by pursuing Assange for purely political reasons.

“OK, there have been some suggestions that Sweden is bowing to political pressure and is, for example, requesting his surrender for reasons other than the prosecution of the offense," says Mackarel. "But there really would have to be some substantial backing or evidence for a British judge to accept that and refuse the surrender on those grounds. For Sweden to misuse the warrant in this way would be potentially hugely damaging for it.”

Judge rejects bail

There was some surprise in court Tuesday when the judge, Howard Riddle, refused bail for Assange on the grounds that there was a risk he would fail to surrender. Others pointed out, however, that bail was difficult to secure in rape cases.

The next crucial hearing to deal with Assange's arguments for why he should not be extradited to Sweden must take place within 60 days of his arrest this morning. He would be likely to be extradited on the 61st day if unsuccessful.

Since its introduction, the EAW has largely been hailed as a success for removing the political and administrative elements of decisionmaking that had dogged the previous system of extradition in Europe. Instead, the process is run entirely by the judiciary.

Could Assange be US-bound?

If Assange is ultimately extradited to Sweden under the EAW system, he could also be vulnerable to extradition requests to the US, which has an extradition treaty with the Scandinavian nation dating back more than five decades.

The arrest comes at a time when WikiLeaks is facing a near existential threat.

It is regularly being battered by cyber-attacks, while Amazon.com and a number of other US Internet companies severed their links with the site, forcing it to move to alternative servers and adopt a new primary Web address, wikileaks.ch, in Switzerland.

Authorities in Switzerland also closed Assange's bank account on Monday, while MasterCard has pulled the plug on payments to WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks defiant

WikiLeaks remains defiant, signaling in a message posted on Twitter that the arrest would not derail the ongoing release of sensitive US diplomatic cables, stating: “Today's actions against our editor-in-chief Julian Assange won't affect our operations: We will release more cables tonight as normal.”

Assange can also count on ample support from many who regard him as a hero.

Already, a group calling itself Justice for Assange has sprung up the Internet.

It posted a plea Tuesday for supporters to turn up at Westminster Magistrates Court to state a silent protest.

They were asked to bring gags and copies of Time magazine, which recently bore a front-page photograph of Assange to accompany a recent interview with him.

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