Wikileaks' Julian Assange 'fears US death penalty'

Julian Assange: "We are happy with today's outcome".

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who published leaked US diplomatic cables, fears he could face the death penalty in the US, defence documents say.

He is fighting extradition from the UK to Sweden over allegations, which he denies, of sexual offences against two women.

His lawyer said there was a "real risk" the US would then seek extradition over the leaking of the diplomatic cables.

The claim was made ahead of a full extradition hearing next month.

Mr Assange founded the whistle-blowing website which published thousands of US embassy cables and other confidential documents online, prompting the US to examine possible charges against him.

He appeared before District Judge Nicholas Evans for a 10-minute hearing on Tuesday at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court, sitting at Woolwich Crown Court.

The 39-year-old Australian spoke only to confirm his name, age and address, and his case was adjourned until 7 and 8 February for a full hearing.

The defence document, posted on the Finers Stephens Innocent website at the request of Mr Assange, suggested that extraditing him to Sweden could breach Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which bans torture.

"It is submitted that there is a real risk that, if extradited to Sweden, the US 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," the document said.

At the scene

Hundreds of international journalists, barristers, Assange supporters and the plain nosy queued for over an hour get inside.

A makeshift media annexe housed the reporters who weren't lucky enough to get a court seat.

Hundreds more waited outside in the damp drizzle. Live tweeting and texting from mobile phones was allowed inside the court but we were warned that cameras were watching us and we'd be asked to leave if we did any more than that.

They needn't have worried because there was no mobile signal anyway.

Julian Assange barely spoke in court and the hearing lasted no more than 15 minutes.

The foreign press, disappointed at the speed of the British legal process, were desperate for something and cameo appearances from celebrity Assange backers Bianca Jagger and Jemima Khan were not enough.

In the end they had to make do with Mr Assange's promise outside court that Wikileaks' work will continue unabated.

The circus continues next month back in Woolwich Crown Court, south London.

"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."

Outside court Mr Assange said: "We are happy with today's outcome."

He told a throng of journalists: "Our work with Wikileaks continues unabated. We are stepping up publishing for Cablegate and other materials. They will be shortly appearing with the help of our newspaper partners."

Bail conditions

The bail conditions were varied to enable Mr Assange to stay at the Frontline Club, in Paddington, on 6 and 7 February.

Mr Assange has been staying at a manor home on the Norfolk-Suffolk border owned by the Frontline Club's owner, Vaughan Smith, but the court heard that it was difficult to reach court in time from that address.

Mr Assange was released on bail by a High Court judge just before Christmas after spending nine days in Wandsworth prison.

He denies sexually assaulting two female supporters during a visit to Stockholm in August.

His defence argument questioned whether the public prosecutor in Gothenburg was authorised to issue the European arrest warrant, as it says only the Swedish National Police Board can do so.

Swedish criticism

It described Mr Assange as a co-operative witness, saying he had already been questioned at length in Sweden. It also pointed out that he could have been questioned again in Britain, by phone or video link, without being extradited to Sweden.

The defence will also criticise the conduct of the investigation in Sweden, saying that "contrary to Swedish law" an acting prosecutor released Mr Assange's name to the press as the suspect in a rape inquiry.

After the Swedish authorities announced that Mr Assange had been cleared of rape by the Stockholm prosecutor, "a secret process" took place resulting in the rape allegation being revived by a new prosecutor.

This secret process was a "blatant breach" of Mr Assange's human rights, his lawyers will say.

They also accuse the Swedish authorities of leaking legal documents to the media.

The defence argument also says there had not been full disclosure about text messages sent from one of the women, in which she said she was "half asleep" at the time of sexual intercourse.

"In passing it should be noted that if the complainant's own evidence that she was 'half asleep' has been bolstered in the EAW [arrest warrant] into an allegation that she was fully asleep, in order to support the making of a rape allegation, then this would in itself constitute prosecutorial abuse," the defence argued.

Mr Assange and his supporters claim the inquiry is politically motivated.

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