WikiLeaks' Assange awaits extradition decision

A British judge has set a date of Feb. 24 for Julian Assange's extradition proceedings

Attorneys for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange put forth their final arguments before a British judge on Friday, seeking to block an extradition request from Sweden to question him on sexual assault allegations.

District Judge Howard Riddle adjourned the hearing in Belmarsh Magistrates' Court in southeast London in the early afternoon, saying the court will reconvene on Feb. 24.

The 39-year-old Australian stands accused of unlawful coercion, sexual molestation and rape for incidents with two women in August that Assange maintains were consensual. He has not been charged, but if charged and convicted could face a maximum of four years in prison.

Assange's attorney, Geoffrey Robertson, started off the hearing with a request it be delayed until March so the defense could find witnesses to address comments made by Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who reportedly publicly refuted attacks by Assange's lawyers on Sweden's legal system. Robertson argued the comments would jeopardize Assange's ability to have a fair trial.

“The real evil of this outburst is not that he [Reinfeldt] will have an effect on these proceedings, but in a small country -- Sweden has only 9 million people -- it has created a toxic atmosphere," Robertson said. “He [Assange] is public enemy number one as a result of the prime minister’s statement.”

Clare Montgomery, who is representing the Swedish government's interests, said Assange and his legal team have routinely made statements to the media in regards to Sweden's legal system, and those who fan the flames "can't be too surprised when they get burnt."

District Judge Riddle denied the request for postponement, saying that there was a need for "an element of finality" for the extradition hearing.

During closing arguments, Robertson said if Assange is extradited, he will face a trial that excludes the press and public, as is the custom in Sweden for sexual assault trials. Further, Assange's trial would be held before three lay judges who can overrule the overseeing judge, who is appointed by a political party.

"It shows beyond doubt he [Assange] won't get a fair trail in Sweden where the prime minister himself whips up hostility to him," Robertson argued.

Montgomery said that Sweden is aware of the concerns about how it conducts sexual assault trials, but contested the assertion that the trial would be closed, stressing that evidence is presented in private.

Assange has been free on bail since December on the condition he surrender his passport, wear an electronic monitoring device and regularly check in with police. Assange has been staying at a manor in the East of England owned by Vaughan Smith, founder of the journalism organization the Frontline Club.

Lawyers for Assange have contended that Sweden's pursuit of their client is connected with the whistle-blowing activities of WikiLeaks, which has continued to slowly release some of the 250,000 secret U.S. diplomatic cables it holds.

The U.S. Attorney General's office has said Assange has been under investigation, but so far he has not been charged.

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