WikiLeaks' Assange in court to appeal UK extradition ruling

AFP , Tuesday 12 Jul 2011

Two-day hearing the beginning of Assange's legal battle against extradition to Sweden

Supporters of Julian Assange protest outside the High Court in London (AP Photo)

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared in a British court on Tuesday to begin the latest stage of his bitter legal battle against extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape.

The 40-year-old Australian is launching an appeal at the High Court in London against a ruling in February in which a judge rejected his defence's arguments that he would face an unfair trial in Sweden.

Wearing a grey suit, blue tie, white shirt and glasses, Assange got out of a black car and walked slowly into the imposing court building surrounded by a scrum of cameramen and journalists.

He refused to answer repeated questions.

A supporter yelled: "Keep fighting the American empire, Julian." Other supporters including campaigning journalist John Pilger also arrived at the court.

Former computer hacker Assange has been living under strict bail conditions, including wearing an electronic ankle tag and a curfew, at a friend's mansion in eastern England since December.

The hearing on Tuesday and Wednesday will take place before two judges. The decision is expected to be deferred until a later date.

Even if the ruling goes against him, Assange's lawyers have signalled he is prepared for a lengthy legal battle and could take his challenge all the way to the Supreme Court.

He was arrested in December after two Swedish women accused him of sexual assault -- allegations that Assange denies -- as his whistleblowing website was in the process of releasing a huge cache of leaked US diplomatic cables.

It was the site's latest dump of American government documents, following the release of secret military files about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and angered Washington.

"It would be unusual for the High Court to give a decision on the same day. It is normal for a written judgment to be given," said a statement from the office of his lawyer, Gareth Peirce.

"Further appeals from a decision of the High Court lie thereafter to the Supreme Court only if a point of law of public importance is certified. As Mr. Assange's lawyers we are not making statements in advance of his appeal."

Swedish authorities want to question him over the sex assault claims, although he has not been formally charged. He has claimed that the allegations are politically motivated.

Assange has shaken up his legal team ahead of the hearing, replacing vocal media lawyer Mark Stephens with Peirce, a high-profile human rights lawyer.

In recent years Peirce has represented Muslim terror suspects, and a former Guantanamo Bay inmate. She made her name in the 1970s and 80s defending people wrongfully jailed over bombings by Northern Irish paramilitary group the IRA.

Despite the tight restrictions on him, Assange managed to celebrate Sunday his 40th birthday, which occurred on 3 July.

More than 100 guests were invited to the party, according to Vaughan Smith, who owns the country estate where Assange is staying.

Assange has claimed his greatest fear is eventual extradition to the United States, where his lawyers argued he could be sent to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility or face the death penalty.

US authorities opened a criminal investigation against Assange in July 2010 but are yet to bring any charges against him.

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