WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asked a British judge on Monday to block his extradition to Sweden on sex crime allegations, arguing he would not get a fair trial and could end up facing execution in the United States.
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The 39-year-old Australian computer expert, who has infuriated the U.S. government by releasing thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables on his website, is wanted in Sweden where two WikiLeaks volunteers allege sexual misconduct. Assange denies the allegations.
Assange's lawyer Geoffrey Robertson told a court in London that Assange would not be able to get a fair trial in Sweden because rape trials are usually held in private.
"You cannot have a fair trial when the press and the public are excluded from the court ... There is a real risk of flagrant violation of his rights," he said at the start of Assange's two-day extradition hearing.
In Stockholm, Swedish officials confirmed that rape trials in the country do normally take place behind closed doors.
Assange, wearing a dark suit and tie, was cheered by a small group of supporters as he was driven into the maximum security Belmarsh Magistrates' Court earlier.
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About a dozen TV satellite trucks were parked outside and reporters from around the world queued to cover the hearing, reflecting the intense media interest in the WikiLeaks founder.
RISK OF EXTRADITION TO U.S.
In a 74-page court submission, Assange's lawyers argue there is a risk that, if he was extradited to Sweden, the United States would seek his "extradition and/or illegal rendition to the USA, where there will be a real risk of him being detained at Guantanamo Bay."
If he was sent to the United States, there was a risk he could be "made subject to the death penalty" charged with espionage for publishing the diplomatic cables.
Prosecution lawyer Clare Montgomery said there was no proof that Assange did run the risk of being extradited to the United States and, if it did happen, Britain would have to give its consent first.
Montgomery dismissed defense arguments that Swedish prosecutors were abusing the fast-track European arrest warrant process because they only want to question Assange and have not yet decided whether to prosecute him.
"The procedure in Sweden requires interrogation before the formal process of indictment can take place," she said.
Grounds for refusing a request are mainly limited to whether extradition would violate a suspect's human rights or whether the arrest warrant was drawn up correctly.
Assange has been living at a supporter's mansion under a form of house arrest since a court granted him bail in December.
Another relates to "Miss W," who says Assange had sex with her without a condom while she was asleep. Prosecutors say that amounts to the least severe of three categories of rape in Sweden, carrying a maximum of four years in jail.
If the court rules he may be extradited, Assange can appeal and the legal arguments could stretch on for months.