Lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said today they fear he could face execution in the United States if he is extradited to Sweden.
The 39-year-old whistleblower is wanted by the Swedish authorities over claims that he sexually assaulted two women during a visit to Stockholm in August.
But his defence team believe there is a ‘real risk’ he could be extradited on to the U.S., where he could be detained in Guantanamo Bay or even face the death penalty.
The claim emerged in a skeleton argument released by Assange’s lawyers in the wake of a preparatory legal hearing at Woolwich Crown Court.
Assange’s legal team suggested that extraditing him to Sweden could breach Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which bans torture.
They wrote: ‘It is submitted that there is a real risk that, if extradited to Sweden, the U.S. will seek his extradition and/or illegal rendition to the USA, where there will be a risk of him being detained at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere, in conditions which would breach Article 3 of the ECHR.
‘Indeed, if Mr Assange were rendered to the USA without assurances that the death penalty would not be carried out, there is a real risk that he could be made subject to the death penalty.’
Today it was confirmed Assange’s lawyers will begin a full two-day extradition hearing on February 7.
In a 10-minute hearing at Belmarsh Magistrates’ Court, his QC Geoffrey Robertson said all legal preparations are in place.
Hannah Pye, for the Swedish authorities, said she had no objection to the date in four weeks time.
District Judge Nicholas Evans released Assange, who spoke only to confirm his name, age and address, on conditional bail.
Assange’s bail was varied so he is able to stay at the Frontline Club, in Paddington, on February 6 and 7.
Mr Robertson said the long journey from his temporary home on the Norfolk/Suffolk border made it difficult to get to court on time.
Assange, who wore a dark suit and light-coloured shirt, leaned forward and listened intently during the hearing.
Mr Robertson said he is ‘confident’ everything will be in place by February 7.
He added that Assange’s legal team is collecting evidence from further witnesses in Sweden.
But the judge said the Swedish authorities are likely to take the view that the extradition warrant will stand nevertheless.
Speaking outside court after the hearing, Assange said he was ‘happy about today’s outcome’ and vowed that WikiLeaks’s activities would continue.
‘I would also like to say that our work with WikiLeaks continues unabated and we are stepping up our publishing for matters relating to ‘cablegate’ and other materials,’ he went on.
‘This will shortly be occurring through our newspaper partners around the world, big and small newspapers and some human rights organisations.’
Assange spent Christmas at a manor home owned by friend and Frontline Club founder Vaughan Smith.
His barrister said he would like to stay at the Frontline Club, in Southwick Mews, Paddington, on the nights before the hearing.
The judge granted the request but said he wanted written confirmation from Assange’s bail sureties saying they agree with the arrangement.
Assange walked into a consultation room with his legal team, including solicitor Mark Stephens, after the hearing.
He was pursued by a group of several dozen reporters but made no comment as police officers followed close behind.
The computer programmer was released on £240,000 bail by a High Court judge last month after spending nine days in Wandsworth Prison.
He denies committing any offences and his supporters claim the criminal inquiry and extradition request is unfair and politically motivated.
The controversial figure was behind the release of hundreds of United States diplomatic cables, as well as information about the Iraq war, that sparked global uproar.
Assange recently signed a book deal for his life story as the U.S. authorities stepped up their pressure on WikiLeaks by demanding information from Twitter.
The hearing took place under intense media scrutiny with journalists from around the world packing 100 seats in the court and an annex connected by video link.
The high security court house has been the scene for a string of terrorism trials including the airline bomb plotters and London Glasgow suicide bomber.
Located on the outskirts of south east London, it is adjacent to Belmarsh Prison and connected to the secure prison complex by a tunnel.
Earlier, supporters of Assange including human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger, socialite Jemima Khan and Gavin MacFadyen, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, arrived at court.
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