LONDON (AP) — Julian Assange took his extradition battle to Britain's Supreme Court on Wednesday, arguing that sending him to Sweden would violate a fundamental legal principle.
The two-day hearing is Assange's last chance to persuade British judges to quash efforts to send him to Scandinavia, where he is wanted on sex crimes allegations. Assange — who leads the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website — was accused of rape, coercion and molestation following encounters with two Swedish women in August 2010, shortly after WikiLeaks published sensitive U.S. government documents relating to the Afghan war.
Assange's case in the Supreme Court hinges on a single technical point: whether Sweden's public prosecutors could issue a warrant for Assange's arrest. Swedish authorities issued the European Arrest Warrant on rape and molestation accusations, and Assange was arrested in London in December 2010. Assange, who denies any wrongdoing, has been fighting extradition since then.
In Britain as in the United States, generally only judges can issue arrest warrants, and British courts only honor warrants issued by what they describe as judicial authorities. Lawyers for Sweden argue that in Sweden, as in other European countries, prosecutors play a judicial or semi-judicial role.
Assange lawyer Dinah Rose rejected that argument Wednesday, telling the seven justices gathered in Britain's highest court that a prosecutor "does not, and indeed cannot as a matter of principle, exercise judicial authority."
She said that wasn't just a parochial British view, but rather a "fundamental principle" that stretches back 1,500 years to the Codex Justinius, the Byzantine legal code.
"No one may be a judge in their own case," Rose said.
Rose spent the first 2 1/2 hours of the hearing combing through British case law and parsing European draft treaties to buttress her case — in some cases slipping into French to make finer points and wording.
She claimed that those who set the rules for European extraditions expected that judicial authorities issuing warrants would be independent and impartial, noting that drafters dropped the reference to public prosecutors from the final version of their text.
Evidence showed, she said, that drafters believed "that the European arrest warrant was a very serious measure that has to be issued by a court."
She spoke confidently and with few interruptions, but legal experts say Rose faces an uphill battle to convince the Supreme Court to block the extradition.
Karen Todner, a prominent extradition specialist, said before the case started that Assange's lawyers were unlikely to overcome the benefit of the doubt usually afforded to other European countries' judicial systems.
British judges "absolutely defer" to their European counterparts' justice systems, she said, adding that she would be "very surprised" if Assange's team won the day.
Just over a dozen sympathizers came to support Assange, a 40-year-old Australian, outside the Supreme Court building Wednesday.
"We're here to show solidarity and hold a vigil for Julian Assange," said Andrew Russell, 31. "He was able to show the world, open that window for a brief time into what's really going on. I see him as a journalist who should be rewarded for that courageous work, rather than hounded."
The U.K. justices, who have dispensed with formal court attire in favor of business suits, will hear lawyers for the prosecution on Thursday. Their decision isn't expected for several weeks.
If they rule against Assange, the 40-year-old Australian is expected to be on a flight to Sweden within two weeks. Assange could conceivably appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, but because Sweden is a fellow European country that would not stop his extradition.
Once in Sweden he would be arrested and a detention hearing would be held within four days. Prosecutors could decide to release him after questioning, but the court could also extend his period of detention. Such hearings must be held every two weeks until a suspect is charged or released. There is no bail in Sweden.
It's still not clear whether charges will be brought against him in Sweden. If Assange is convicted, the penalties for the types of crime he's accused of range from fines to as much as six years in prison.