On July 12 Julian Assange’s new legal team is scheduled to appeal before a London court his extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning in a sexual assault case brought by two Swedish women. Solicitor Gareth Peirce and barrister Ben Emmerson are respected human rights attorneys replacing a previous team described by Guardian investigations executive editor David Leigh as “high-priced Fleet Street lawyers.”
If Assange loses his July appeal, he can continue protesting his extradition to Sweden, ordered by a London court last February, by appealing to the United Kingdom’s supreme court and the European Court of Human Rights.
Assange’s previous legal team had argued that London is a better sanctuary than Sweden, where he worries he will be extradited to the United States on WikiLeaks conspiracy charges now being explored by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia. In their legal submissions, Assange’s first set of attorneys argued that if Sweden ever extradited him to the United States, he could be detained at Guantánamo.
Referring to articles by this writer in The Nation, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! asked Assange in a public forum in England on July 2 whether his legal strategy was changing with the appointment of Gareth Peirce. “Possibly,” he replied, but he denied any suggestion that his legal team had questioned the integrity of the two Swedish women charging him with sexual assault. “We have to be considerate,” he said, while continuing to question the Swedish system, including the fact that so far he has not been charged with a crime there. He renewed his criticism of the federal grand jury in Virginia, calling it a “star chamber” and a “political witch hunt.”
Peirce, an extradition expert, may be ultimately preparing for a US extradition demand, whether from London or Stockholm. In a lengthy 2010 London Review of Books essay, she argued that America’s legal approach regarding extradition procedure is contrary to European norms and in violation of the Convention on Torture: “practice after practice is accepted as standard in America which, in Europe, could risk the prohibition of a trial, or subsequently cause its nullification, or bring an end to the conditions of imprisonment it stipulated.”
If American authorities eventually indict Assange and demand his extradition, the proceedings could raise a firestorm of protest. But any extradition from Sweden would have to be approved by both Stockholm and London—under extradition law, an individual may not be extradited on one charge from nation A to nation B, and then extradited to nation C on a different charge. The prosecutors will be faced with strong opposition from the United States, the United Kingdom and Sweden.
Why did Assange’s first set of lawyers argue that he’s safer from US extradition in Britain, the closest US ally in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the secret “war on terror”? They never explained. “It’s much easier for him to be snatched from here,” says Leigh from London. “The extradition treaty with the UK is controversial because it makes it easier.” There is more mass media in London and a more vibrant antiwar movement, but little to suggest that the British system is a model of human rights protection compared with Sweden. Even so, “the worry was that Sweden would be more under the thumb of the US than England, and appeals could take up years before an extradition to the US,” said to an American lawyer close to the Assange defense. “The theory always was that it was harder to get him out of the UK than out of Sweden.”