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Legal process keeps Assange free for now

Julian Assange

FILE: Founder and editor of the WikiLeaks website, Julian Assange, speaks to members of the media during a debate event held in London.AP

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains free while his website spews daily embarrassment and potential diplomatic damage to the United States, his liberty protected for now by the slowly grinding wheels of the law.

Assange, who is now in Britain, according to his British lawyer, is wanted in Sweden to face allegations of sexual offenses against two women, charges he denies, but the United States has not lodged any charges against him. Nor has Britain.

In the Swedish case, Assange, an Australian, is the target of a European extradition process which normally takes months to produce an arrest.

"It's just paperwork. It has to go into the Foreign Office, then goes to go to the Home Office, then goes to SOCA (the Serious Organized Crime Agency), then goes to the magistrates' court," Karen Todner, a lawyer who has been involved in several high-profile cases, told The Associated Press on Saturday.

But in Assange's case — which involves the release of some 250,000 American diplomatic cables — "I presume this one will be getting a bit of a red letter treatment," Todner said.

One of Todner's clients is Gary McKinnon, wanted in the United States for hacking into NASA and military computers in 2001. That case has dragged on for eight years, and McKinnon is still in Britain.

Sweden's first bid for extradition was rebuffed by SOCA because it did not disclose the maximum sentence for each of the possible charges, as required by British law.

That information was forwarded on Thursday, said Karin Rosander, a spokeswoman at the Swedish Prosecution Authority.

Assange denies the Swedish charges, which his British lawyer, Mark Stephens, has said stem from a "dispute over consensual but unprotected sex." He said Assange was happy to speak to Swedish prosecutors and had provided his contact details to authorities there and in Britain.

The alleged offenses occurred in August in Stockholm and Enkoping, 50 miles (80 kms) northwest of the capital.

Swedish prosecutors questioned Assange on Aug. 30.

Court documents filed by the prosecutor say Assange is suspected of raping and sexually molesting a woman in Enkoping and of sexual molestation and unlawful coercion of the second woman in Stockholm.

A police report said both women met Assange in connection with a seminar he gave in Stockholm on Aug. 14. Their complaints were filed six days later.

On Nov. 30, Interpol placed Assange on its most-wanted list after Sweden issued an arrest warrant. Interpol says some of its 188 member countries consider a "red notice" as a valid request for an arrest, and that is likely to make international travel more difficult for him.

If Assange is arrested in Britain, his guilt or innocence would not be a factor in extradition proceedings. A court would first have to decide if the extradition warrant met the technical requirements of the law.

"There'll be no evidence produced," Todner said. "Sweden will just have to say: 'We have a case' and that's it."

Ultimately, Home Secretary Theresa May would have the final decision on whether to remove him to Sweden.

The case could become more complicated if the United States seeks to extradite Assange.

John Bellinger, a former legal adviser to the U.S. State Department, says Assange could be charged with espionage, stealing government property or retaining stolen government property.

"If the Justice Department were actually to issue charges against Mr. Assange while he was still in Britain there could be potentially a decision for the U.K. government whether to extradite him to Sweden or to the United States, and that could get to be a complicated clash between the two different requests which would put the U.K. government in a difficult position," Bellinger told AP Television News.

"We could potentially wait to see if he is prosecuted in Sweden and then still seek his extradition to the United States, and ask the Swedes to extradite him here," Bellinger added.

But Assange has said the publication of the U.S. documents will continue no matter what happens to him. In an online chat with The Guardian newspaper, he said material from the diplomatic cables and other documents had been sent in encrypted form "to over 100,000 people."

"If something happens to us, the key parts will be released automatically," he said. But didn't say whether an arrest would trigger such a mass release.

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Associated Press writers Raphael G. Satter in London and Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm contributed to this report.