Afua Hirsch Legal affairs correspondent
Julian Assange’s arrest by police this morning will kickstart the fast-tracked extradition process, using the European Arrest Warrant system, to attempt to return him to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning regarding a rape charge.
Swedish criminal law experts said this morning that little was known about the allegations Assange is facing in the country, in line with legal requirements to protect anonymity and preserve confidentiality for sex crimes.
The activation of a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) by UK police suggests Assange has been formally charged by Swedish prosecutors and could face a period of detention upon his return.
Assange’s legal team is determined to fight his extradition on grounds including the failure of authorities to provide details of the warrant issued by Sweden. They will also claim human rights reasons, including the arguments that the WikiLeaks founder may be unfairly deprived of his liberty in Sweden and that he risks not facing a fair trial.
The media attention surrounding Assange’s case is likely to complicate any future criminal proceedings, although the lack of a jury system in Sweden is likely to fuel arguments that he will be protected from public and media interest in the case.
Assange’s first appearance at Westminster magistrates’ court today will be primarily concerned with formalities, including establishing his identity and determining whether he consents to the extradition.
The court will then adjourn for a full extradition hearing, which has to be within 21 days. A key issue will be whether Assange is released on bail during that period. His lawyers are reported to be putting together a generous bail package, including a security of at least £100,000 and a surety, where third parties guarantee to pay the court if he absconds.
Experts say a large sum is likely to secure bail, although the crime for which Assange is wanted by Sweden is rape, an offence for which bail is harder to secure.
If extradited to Sweden under the EAW – a process that could be concluded quickly under the fast-track procedure – Assange will be vulnerable to other extradition requests from countries including the US.
The US has an extradition treaty with Sweden since the 1960s, when the nations agreed to “make more effective the co-operation of the two countries in the repression of crime”.
Extradition under the treaty is likely to face a number of obstacles, not least the fact that the likely charges facing Assange in the US – under the Espionage Act or other legislation protecting national security – are not included in the exhaustive list of offences set out in the law.
There may also be issues of jurisdiction, since the offences Assange is alleged by the US to have conducted did not take place within the country. However, with other cases involving alleged cybercrimes, such as the case pending against computer hacker Gary McKinnon, the US has claimed that entering its computer systems remotely constitutes an offence it has jurisdiction to prosecute.
Even if Assange’s case falls outside the remit of Sweden’s treaty with the US, there is scope for the country to agree to his extradition to the US.
Swedish law permits extradition more generally to countries outside Europe, although the process is subject to safeguards, including a ban on extradition for “political offences” or where the suspect has reason to fear persecution on account of their membership of a social group or political beliefs.
Under similar arrangements, Assange could also be vulnerable to extradition requests from other countries, including his native Australia, where the authorities are investigating a potential case against him.
Any extradition from Sweden to other countries could take place only after the current rape proceedings have been concluded. With Assange’s lawyers confirming their intention to dispute those proceedings on all grounds, it seems the prospect of any extradition to the US remains some way away.