WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Wednesday launched a final attempt to persuade British officials not to force him to go to Sweden to face sex crimes allegations.
A lawyer for the 40-year-old Australian told Britain's highest court that age-old legal tradition would be compromised if it endorsed a European Arrest Warrant written up by Swedish prosecutors.
The Supreme Court hearing is the latest chapter in Assange's months-long fight against allegations of molestation and rape lodged by two women he met during a trip to Sweden in 2010, just as his website was grabbing worldwide attention with its spectacular leaks of sensitive U.S. government documents.
Assange denies the allegations, arguing that the sex was consensual, and has refused to return to Sweden, saying he fears the case against him is being manipulated to political ends.
Although Assange's saga has been shot through with international diplomacy, cyberactivism and scandal, the case now before the U.K. Supreme Court hinges on a dry technicality: Whether Sweden's public prosecutor was qualified to issue a warrant for Assange's arrest.
In Britain as in the United States, generally only judges can issue arrest warrants, and U.K. courts only honor European arrest warrants issued by what they describe as judicial authorities.
So far British courts have upheld the Swedish warrant on the grounds that prosecutors there, like elsewhere in Europe, play a quasi-judicial role.
Assange lawyer Dinah Rose tried to tear that argument apart Wednesday, telling the seven justices gathered in wood-panelled Courtroom 1 that a prosecutor "does not, and indeed cannot as a matter of principle, exercise judicial authority."
Rose said that putting the power to arrest suspects in the hands of the same prosecutors bent on trying and convicting them was completely unfair, arguing that the principle could be traced back to the laws of the Byzantine Empire.
"No one may be a judge in their own case," Rose said, later calling it "about as fundamental a principle as you can have."
Rose spent four hours combing through British case law, parliamentary reports and European draft treaties to buttress her argument _ sometimes even slipping into French to make finer points about the documents' wording.
She went on to criticize the way that many countries had implemented the European arrest warrant system _ which fast-tracks extraditions between European nations _ and condemned Sweden's justice system, which she accused of falling down on its legal obligations.
She also had tart words for Britain's lower courts, which she said had shown signs of "incoherence" in their judgments.
Rose spoke confidently and with few interruptions _ unlike Sweden's lawyer Clare Montgomery, who was repeatedly questioned by judges about her assertion that impartiality wasn't a prerequisite for issuing an arrest warrant.
"The decision whether to arrest somebody might be made by somebody who is partisan," Montgomery insisted. "That happens throughout Europe."
The U.K. justices will hear more from Montgomery on Thursday. Their ruling isn't expected for another few weeks.
Experts interviewed before the hearing said the advantage was with the Swedish side.
Karen Todner, a 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 triumphed.
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 Assange if he's brought to Sweden. If he were convicted, the penalties for the types of crime he's accused of range from fines to as much as six years in prison.
Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://twitter.com/razhael