POSTED: 02:15 a.m. HST, Dec 04, 2011
LONDON » Julian Assange is making what could be a last throw of the legal dice in his battle to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex crimes allegations.
On Monday the WikiLeaks founder will ask judges to let him take his case to Britain's Supreme Court. If they say no, he could be on a plane to Stockholm within days.
The 40-year-old Australian behind the secret-spilling website has spent almost a year on bail in Britain fighting extradition for questioning over claims of rape and molestation made by two Swedish women. So far, two courts have ruled against him.
For his case to be considered by Britain's Supreme Court, Assange's lawyers must persuade two High Court judges that it raises a question of "general public importance."
According to a website devoted to arguing Assange's case, his lawyers will seek to argue two points -- that the European arrest warrant for Assange is invalid because it was not issued by the correct authority, and that he should not be extradited because he has not been charged with any crime.
Lower courts have already considered and rejected both arguments.
Assange's hearing on Monday will come on the same day as a parliamentary debate on Britain's extradition rules. The House of Commons will debate and vote on demands to change extradition agreements that require Britain to transfer individuals to the U.S. and Europe -- sometimes on insufficient evidence, critics say.
Assange declined to discuss his case, but told The Associated Press he was heartened that lawmakers are tackling the issue of extraditions.
"What we ask for is humble -- the right to not be shipped off to foreign lands without formal charges or the presentation of even the most basic evidence," he told the AP in an email.
A district judge ruled in February that Assange could be extradited, and the High Court upheld that decision last month, saying the alleged offenses amounted to crimes under British law and ruling that the arrest warrant had been properly issued.
If Assange is granted a Supreme Court appeal, his stay in Britain -- where he lives under curfew at an affluent supporter's rural mansion -- is likely to last for many more months.
If he is denied, his legal fight will move to Sweden. Last month Assange replaced his Swedish lawyer with two high-profile attorneys, Per E. Samuelson and Thomas Olsson. Samuelson has a long track-record as a defense lawyer in sex crime cases and has also represented one of the men behind file-sharing website The Pirate Bay.
The allegations against Assange stem from a visit to Sweden in August 2010, shortly after WikiLeaks released secret U.S. files from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assange became involved with two women, one of whom later accused him of coercion and molestation. The other alleged that he had sex with her as she slept.
Swedish prosecutors have not charged Assange with any crime, but have demanded that he return to Scandinavia to face questions.
He denies wrongdoing and says the sex was consensual. He has insisted the sex crimes investigation is politically motivated by opponents of his organization.
Assange has become a global figure since WikiLeaks began releasing secret government documents, including hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables from U.S. missions around the world.
Vilified by U.S. authorities and other governments angry about their secrets being leaked, he has been hailed as a free-speech hero by many around the world.
But his expensive legal troubles -- and moves by U.S. financial companies to block donations to the site -- have taken a financial toll on WikiLeaks, which has been forced to suspend publishing to focus on fundraising. Assange has said the organization needs $3.5 million to keep it going into 2013.
Assange also faces potential legal action in the U.S., where prosecutors are weighing criminal charges, and where he could be dragged into the case of Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army analyst suspected of disclosing secret intelligence to WikiLeaks.
Manning remains in custody at Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas. A military court hearing to decide whether he will stand trial is due to begin Dec. 16.