WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange took his 13-month fight against extradition to Sweden to England’s highest court on Wednesday.
Seven judges are hearing the 40-year-old Australian’s appeal over two days at the Supreme Court and are not expected to return their judgment for several weeks.
A charismatic but temperamental figure, Assange was detained in Britain in December 2010 on a European arrest warrant issued by a Swedish prosecutor after two female former WikiLeaks volunteers accused him of sexual assault.
His lawyers argue that the warrant is invalid because it was issued by a prosecutor rather than a neutral judge or court.
Assange, who has been living on bail under virtual house arrest while awaiting the outcome of his case, denies the rape allegations and insists the sex was consensual.
If the court rejects his appeal, the former computer hacker will have exhausted all his options in Britain but he could still make a last-ditch appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, prosecutors have said.
WikiLeaks has enraged Washington by leaking thousands of classified U.S. documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, causing Assange to insist the extradition proceedings are politically motivated.
He has said after earlier hearings that he fears he will eventually be handed over to the United States.
But Washington is divided over Assange, with some officials calling for tough action against him to deter would-be leakers and others saying a prosecution would be legally problematic and would give him a boost when he appears headed for irrelevance.
Bradley Manning, a U.S. army intelligence analyst suspected of passing thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, is facing a court-martial on 22 charges including aiding the enemy and wrongfully causing intelligence to be published online.
While the legal battle has dragged on, Assange’s celebrity status has grown -- he is to host his own TV show and will make an appearance as himself later this month on the 500th episode of the U.S. cartoon show Simpsons.
Announcing the chat show, WikiLeaks described Assange as “one of the world’s most recognizable revolutionary figures” and promised interviews with “key political players and thinkers”.
WikiLeaks claims it has secured licensing commitments covering more than 600 million viewers across cable, satellite and terrestrial networks.
So far Russia’s state-run RT is the only channel to confirm it will broadcast the show.
Assange’s extradition to Sweden was initially approved by a lower court in February 2011.
An appeal to the High Court was rejected in November, but it subsequently granted him permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.
If this appeal fails, the WikiLeaks founder will have only one other option to stop his extradition -- an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
“If the ECHR takes the case then his current bail conditions would remain in force and he would remain in the UK until the proceedings at the ECHR have concluded,” the Crown Prosecution Service said in a commentary on the case.
“If the ECHR declines to take the case then he will be extradited to Sweden as soon as arrangements can be made,” England’s state prosecutor said.
Concerning Assange’s case before the Supreme Court, Julian Knowles, an extradition law specialist with the Matrix Chambers law firm, said the question of whether a public prosecutor was a valid judicial authority had been comprehensively tested.
“The courts have always reached the clear answer that while it may look odd to English eyes... European systems don’t have the same structure,” he was quoted as saying Tuesday in The Guardian newspaper.
“The courts have always said that to make extradition work, you have to be flexible in your approach to what extradition is.”
Were Assange to win, the consequences would be “very profound”, he said.
“It would basically mean, until the law is rewritten, that extradition to Europe (would) become very difficult, if not impossible.
“Because in the vast majority of European extradition requests, the arrest warrant is issued not by a court, as it would be in England, but by a prosecutor.”