Assange's repeated disclosures of classified U.S. documents have infuriated the Pentagon and energized critics of American foreign policy, but allegations that the 40-year-old Australian molested two women during a trip to Scandinavia last year have tarnished his reputation and cast a shadow over his future.
At London's High Court -- where Assange is appealing a previous decision to send him to Sweden for questioning -- his attorney Ben Emmerson conceded that the women involved may have found sex with his client "disrespectful, discourteous or disturbing."
But Emmerson insisted it had been entirely consensual and wouldn't be illegal in the context of English law.
"The conduct that is complained of would not constitute a crime in this jurisdiction," he said.
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.
On Tuesday, his lawyer went into graphic detail of the incidents described in the warrant seeking Assange's removal. Emmerson argued that Assange had agreed to wear a condom during intercourse -- contrary to what one his accuser alleges. Another incident -- in which Assange took off some of his clothes and rubbed himself against his alleged victim -- Emmerson dismissed as "awkward" rather than criminal -- noting that she'd been sharing a bed with him at the time, and after the alleged incident merely moved to a mattress .
"She may not have enjoyed what was going on," Emmerson said, but there was nothing unlawful about it. As for the allegation that Assange had had sex with a woman who was asleep, Emmerson said that she'd consented to the act after the fact and even made jokes about it.
Assange watched proceedings in the second row of the wood-paneled courtroom, flanked by supporters. He wore his platinum-colored hair cut short, with spectacles and a dark-colored suit. Members of public gathered in the court's upper gallery, while outside a small group of protesters were gathered, with one banner reading: "The First Casualty of War is Truth."
In an interview last month, Assange complained that the strict bail conditions -- he's under an overnight curfew, must wear an electronic tag and report to police daily -- 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.
Assange's appeal hearing was due to last until Wednesday. Judgment is expected to be reserved, which means that a ruling might not be made public for days or weeks. Assange has vowed to take his case to Britain's Supreme Court or the European Court of Human Rights if his appeal is rejected.
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.