LONDON. Julian Assange’s new legal team appealed his extradition to Sweden before the Royal Court in central London Tuesday, seeking to take advantage of modest safeguards included in the “draconian” European extradition law passed in the wake of 9/11 nearly a decade ago.
Gone were disparaging criticisms of the Swedish legal system, where Assange is sought for questioning about allegations of unwanted sexual relations with two Swedish women last August. In his opening statement, barrister Ben Emmerson stressed there was no intention to “denigrate” the two women’s integrity nor “trivialize their experience.” In a written submission, the attorneys said their client “does not…allege bad faith or ulterior motive on the part of Swedish authorities”, acknowledging that the Stockholm prosecutors were “genuine” in attempts to summarize their case.
The new tone was predicted in The Nation last week as a new solicitor, Gareth Peirce, was brought on board to navigate Assange’s defense. Disparaging remarks by previous counsel towards the women and the Swedish courts have been perceived as wrong and counterproductive by many in Sweden.
It was the author John Pilger, a strong supporter of Assange, who introduced the WikiLeaks founder to Peirce, a respected human rights defender, several weeks ago. Pilger is an outspoken critic of the 2003 extradition law, which he says passed amidst hysteria after 9/11. Peirce, who has fought extradition cases for years, says that prosecutors view the 2003 law as “extradition on demand.”
Tuesday’s six-hour hearing before Lord Justice Thomas and Justice Ouseley was the most dramatic instance, according to Court observers, of citing little-noticed safeguards in the 2003 law. Among those procedural tools are:
- A requirement that a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) contain proper, fair and accurate descriptions of the offenses charged against the defendant. The defense claims that the accusations against Assange are inflammatory and unbalanced.
- Section 64 (3) of the Act requires that the offenses in question must be crimes under British law as the extraditing country and punishable by imprisonment for one year or more. The defense says that most if not all the charges against Assange in Sweden would not be crimes in the UK.
- Section 2 (3) requires that an individual only be extradited for the “purpose of being prosecuted”, not simply for questioning. Swedish prosecutors have claimed many times that Assange is sought only to answer questions.
- An independent “judicial authority” must make the request for extradition, but in Sweden’s case the call has come from prosecutors. The Assange team says that the prosecution cannot represent the state interest.
The four charges faced by Assange are unlawful coercion, two cases of sexual molestation and “minor rape.” The women’s accounts, as delivered through police questioning, are contested by Assange and his legal team as sincere enough but are not accurate, fair and proper descriptions of his conduct, as required in an extradition case. For example, the minor rape count is that Assange was “improperly exploiting” one of the women because she was “in a helpless state”, or asleep. In an interview, however, the woman said she was actually “half asleep” when she permitted Assange to enter her without a condom after “nagging him” to wear one. The defense also claims that none of the acts alleged would be crimes in the UK.
Overall, the Assange argument is that the 2003 extradition law, passed under 9/11 pressures to accelerate the detention and extradition of terrorists, should not be used to override long-established mechanisms of due process and independence of judiciaries.
Tuesday’s long hearing served to detach Assange from his whistle-blowing role at WikiLeaks. Assange, who spent the day in court, made no comments to the press. About 30 protestors assembled outside the Royal Court, a handful carrying signs condemning the Afghanistan War.
The prosecution will defend its position on Wednesday. An internal Court memo suggests that the panel is not likely to render a decision immediately.