LONDON — Lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange argued Monday that their client should not be extradited to Sweden for questioning in alleged sex crimes, saying he was the victim of unduly aggressive prosecutors and would not be guaranteed a fair trial.
On the opening day of a two-day hearing, Assange's legal team sought to downplay the severity of the molestation and rape accusations against him and to cast doubt on the credibility and authority of the Swedish prosecutor seeking his extradition, calling a witness who referred to her as an "ultra-radical feminist."
But British prosecutors, acting on their Swedish colleagues' behalf, said the alleged crimes committed during Assange's liaisons with two women last August were serious enough to warrant his return to Stockholm to be interrogated and possibly charged.
The faceoff in court was the latest installment in what is likely to be a bitter, drawn-out fight over whether Assange, 39, is a suspected criminal who must accede to the legitimate demands of the Swedish justice system or the subject of an unfair and politically motivated campaign to punish him for the revelations of his whistle-blowing website.
Assange had been awaiting the extradition hearing since giving himself up to police in London on a European arrest warrant in December. He has spent most of the last two months at a supporter's sprawling country estate north of London, under a form of house arrest that requires him to abide by a curfew and wear an electronic tag.
Assange, who is Australian, has steadfastly denied allegations that he acted inappropriately or coercively toward two women with whom he had sex on separate occasions in Sweden last summer.
Instead, he accuses prosecutors in the Scandinavian country of hounding him at the behest of the U.S. government, which is angry over his website's leak of secret documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and of cables from the State Department. He says he is in danger of being turned over to U.S. authorities by Sweden, put into detention at the military base at Guantanamo Bay and even executed for espionage.
But Clare Montgomery, the British prosecutor, said Monday that fears Assange could be summarily shipped from Sweden to the United States were baseless. Britain must approve any such U.S. request, which would also have to meet other European legal requirements.
Geoffrey Robertson, Assange's lead attorney, told the court that extraditing his client to Sweden merely for questioning would be overkill for a man who has repeatedly offered to be interviewed by Swedish authorities via telephone or video link.
Once in Sweden, Assange would then run the risk of a "flagrant denial of justice" because rape trials there are held behind closed doors, without public or media access, Robertson added.
Assange's defense team also argues that the allegations brought against him, even if true, would not necessarily constitute crimes under British law. The two women accuse Assange of refusing their requests that he use a condom during sex; one of the women alleges that he began having intercourse with her while she was asleep.
Sweden's more sweeping laws on sexual assault allow for a possible charge of "minor rape" in such instances. But Robertson dismissed the category as a "contradiction in terms," one with no equivalent in Britain.
However, Montgomery said the allegations were serious because they involved some physical force, including the accusation by one of the women that Assange used his body weight to keep her pinned beneath him.
Perhaps the most surprising portion of Monday's proceedings was the testimony of Brita Sundberg-Weitman, a retired Swedish judge who appeared as a defense witness. Sundberg-Weitman unleashed a barrage of criticism of Marianne Ny, the Swedish prosecutor, essentially describing her as "malicious" and motivated by a radical feminist agenda in her handling of rape cases.
"In my opinion she has lost her balance," Sundberg-Weitman said, before tempering some of her remarks under cross-examination.
The hearing continues Tuesday, but a decision by the court may not be handed down for days.