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Lawyer: Assange's sexual relations 'consensual'

Image: Julian Assange
Julian Assange, center, arrives at the High Court in London on Tuesday.Sang Tan / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asked a court for a second time on Tuesday to block his extradition from Britain to Sweden for questioning over allegations of sexual misconduct, arguing the case was legally flawed.

The 40-year-old Australian computer expert is in the High Court in London for a two-day hearing after losing an initial challenge to the extradition order in February.

His defense lawyer, Ben Emmerson, told two judges the European arrest warrant on which he was being held was flawed because it failed to provide "a fair, accurate and proper" description of his alleged sexual misconduct in Sweden.

Emmerson also argued Assange, arrested in December and now on bail, was a victim of a "philosophical and judicial mismatch" between English and Swedish law on what constituted sex crimes.

Swedish prosecutors want to question Assange about three allegations of sexual assault and one of rape made by two women, both WikiLeaks volunteers, in Sweden last August. He denies the allegations and has not been formally charged with any offence.

Emmerson said that given the 40-year-old Australian is only wanted for questioning, extraditing him would be disproportionate.

Emmerson, addressing the gathered media, emphasized that he was not trying to denigrate Assange's accusers.

But he insisted that Assange's sexual encounters had been "entirely consensual."

Advances 'initially welcomed'The Guardian newspaper, in its live blog of the proceedings, reported that Assange's lawyers argued that the allegations could not be reasonably described as rape.

Emmerson said one alleged offense — of having sex with a woman without a condom when she had requested one — was not illegal under English law, The Guardian said.

Describing one key encounter on Aug. 13 between Assange and an alleged victim, known as AA, Emmerson said Assange's " physical advances were initially welcomed," The Guardian reported.

"But then it felt awkward since he was 'rough and impatient' … They lay down in bed. AA was lying on her back and Assange was on top of her … AA felt that Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina directly, which she did not want since he was not wearing a condom," Emmerson told the court, according to the paper.

The lawyer said she did not tell Assange this, but " tried to turn her hips and squeeze her legs together," The Guardian reported. She reached for a condom but Assange held her arms and opened her legs, continuing to try to have sex with her without a condom.

"AA says that she felt about to cry since she was held down and could not reach a condom and felt this could end badly," Emmerson added.

Puts on condomHowever, he said there was no lack of consent to support an allegation of unlawful coercion, because "after a while Assange asked what AA was doing and why she was squeezing her legs together."

"AA told him that she wanted him to put a condom on before he entered her. Assange let go of AA's arms and put on a condom," the lawyer said, according to the Guardian.

The allegations against Assange date back to August of 2010, when the former hacker had just released U.S. intelligence material related to the war in Afghanistan. He became involved with two women — one of whom later accused him of coercion and molestation, another of whom alleged that he had had sex with her as she slept.

Swedish prosecutors haven't charged Assange, but they want him back in Scandinavia to face questions about the case. Assange has resisted any such move, arguing that he's perfectly capable of answering questions from Britain and that the case is being manipulated to political ends — possibly with an eye toward sending him to the United States, where a federal grand jury is investigating WikiLeaks' activities.

Assange, wearing a dark-blue suit, sat quietly in court, swapping notes with his defense team and aides.

Fellow Australian and left-wing investigative journalist and author, John Pilger, sat close by. He had earlier arrived at court to be greeted by a small group of supporters, some carrying banners reading: "Free Assange." Another banner read: "The First Casualty of War is Truth."

In a case which has drawn huge international interest, two judges are being asked by Assange's legal team to rule that his sexual encounters with both women were consensual and the alleged offences do not merit extradition.

A judge originally dismissed arguments by Assange's defense team that he would not get a fair trial in Sweden and that it would ultimately violate his human rights.

U.S. considering criminal chargesThe U.S. government is examining whether criminal charges can be brought against Assange over the leaks. Assange fears extradition to Sweden could be a stepping-stone to him being taken to the United States.

His lawyers have in the past argued he could be sent to the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba or even face the death penalty.

Even if the High Court upholds the extradition request, Assange could take his battle to Britain's Supreme Court, the country's highest, though this can only be done on a point of law considered to be of general public interest.

A Supreme Court ruling would mark the end of the process.

Assange has hired a new legal team to represent him after his previous team, which included prominent British attorney Mark Stephens, was seen as too confrontational.

Replacing Stephens is prominent human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce.

She has represented accused militants in high-profile cases, including former prisoners held by the United States at Guantanamo, and the "Guildford Four," a group of Irish citizens whose conviction in an alleged IRA bomb plot was overturned after they had spent years in prison.

In an emailed statement prior to the appeal hearing her office said "it would be highly unusual" for the High Court to pronounce a decision over the appeal on the same day.

"It is normal for a written judgment to be given," it said.

After a brief spell in prison following his arrest by British authorities at Sweden's request, Assange was released on bail and has been living under strict court-imposed restrictions at a country mansion in eastern England.

Despite the bail conditions, which include wearing an electronic ankle tag, reporting to police daily and respecting a curfew, Assange celebrated his 40th birthday with a party there on Sunday.

However, in an interview last month, Assange complained that the bail conditions had hampered his activities.

His website has not accepted any new material in months, although WikiLeaks' latest release in April — hundreds of detainee assessment forms covering the inmates at Guantanamo Bay — offered never-before-published information on those being held at the U.S. military prison.

Online, there were hints from a high-profile member of Anonymous — an amorphous, loosely organized group of hackers sympathetic to WikiLeaks — that confidential U.S. data might be leaked online to coincide with the hearing.