LONDON — Julian Assange's long-running battle against extradition comes to a climax at Britain's Supreme Court this week, and legal experts say that the WikiLeaks founder faces long odds.
Assange has already failed twice in his bid to block his extradition to Sweden, where he faces sex crime allegations stemming from a trip there in mid-2010. The two-day hearing which begins Wednesday is the last chance his lawyers have to persuade a British court not to send him to Scandinavia.
"I don't think he'll succeed," said Peter Caldwell, an extradition lawyer familiar with Assange's legal submission.
European arrest warrants are difficult to beat, and Caldwell said that while Assange's case was "well-argued ... it doesn't get beyond the obligation of the U.K. to give effect to European law."
Assange is celebrated by some as a champion of transparency and reviled by others as an enemy of the U.S. government, but the argument before the Supreme Court has nothing to do with his career as an online secret-spiller or even the merits of the Swedish sex allegations — which Assange has always denied.
The Supreme Court justices are being asked to rule on a purely technical question: Is the European arrest warrant a valid one?
Assange's legal team argues that it isn't.
In Britain as in the United States, generally only judges can approve arrest warrants. In this case, the warrant was issued by Sweden's public prosecutor. Assange's lawyers argue that the Swedish system is unfair because it puts the power to issue arrest warrants in the hands of the same prosecutors who are trying to put him in jail.
Karen Todner, another prominent extradition specialist, said 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.
The Supreme Court took the case in part to show that Assange had been given every possible chance to challenge his extradition, according to Valsamis Mitsilegas, the director of the criminal justice center at Queen Mary University of London.
"They want to send a clear message that they're taking this seriously and that due process has been taken in this case," Mitsilegas said, noting that seven justices would hear the claim — something he said was typically reserved for cases of high importance.
The judges will hear two days of arguments before making their decision, which is not expected for another 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. 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.
Looming in the background is the U.S. investigation into WikiLeaks, which could potentially see Assange charged with espionage or other offenses. His supporters fear that authorities are hoping to send him to Sweden as prelude to an extradition to the United States.
Todner and Caldwell both said that Assange could be better off fighting such a request from Sweden than from Britain, which has a fast-track extradition agreement with the United States.
Legal difficulties — and an embargo by major U.S. financial companies — have taken their toll on WikiLeaks, which burst onto the scene with spectacular disclosures of secret documents and dramatic footage of a deadly U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad.
The group has frozen its publishing operations as it focuses on fundraising, and Assange has turned his eye to other projects, including a talk show due to be broadcast on the Kremlin's English-language broadcaster, RT, and a possible guest appearance on "The Simpsons."
First judgment against Assange: http://bit.ly/wnzNXs
Second judgment against Assange: http://bit.ly/xCGoDx
European arrest warrants explained: http://bit.ly/fwe4l9