Pursuit of WikiLeaks founder heats up

Friday, December 3, 2010
Julian Assange

THE FORMER hacker is wanted by Swedish officials on sex charges

LONDON -- The law is closing in on Julian Assange. Swedish authorities won a court ruling Thursday in their bid to arrest the WikiLeaks founder for questioning in a rape case, British intelligence is said to know where in England he's hiding, and U.S. pundits and politicians are demanding he be hunted down or worse.

The former computer hacker who has embarrassed the U.S. government and foreign leaders with his online release of a huge trove of secret American diplomatic cables suffered a legal setback when Sweden's Supreme Court upheld an order to detain him -- a move that could lead to his extradition.

Newly posted cables on WikiLeaks' website detailed a host of embarrassing disclosures, including allegations that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi accepted kickbacks and a deeply unflattering assessment of Turkmenistan's president.

Assange is accused in Sweden of rape, sexual molestation and coercion in a case from August, and Swedish officials have alerted Interpol and issued a European arrest warrant to bring him in for questioning.

The 39-year-old Australian denies the charges, which his lawyer, Mark Stephens, said apparently stemmed from a "dispute over consensual but unprotected sex." Stephens said the case is turning into an exercise in persecution.

Assange's lawyer insisted authorities know where to find him.

"Both the British and the Swedish authorities know how to contact him, and the security services know exactly where he is," Stephens said.

It was unclear if or when police would act on Sweden's demands. Police there acknowledged Thursday they would have to refile their European arrest warrant after British authorities asked for more details on the maximum penalties for the three crimes.

The Guardian claims Assange is hiding out in England.

In a statement, Assange's lawyer in Sweden, Bjorn Hurtig, suggested that Assange is being retaliated against for the leaks.

Stephens -- who also represents the Associated Press on media-related matters -- said that if Assange is ever served with a warrant, he will fight it in British court.

The Swedish case has been subject to a great deal of back and forth, with Swedish prosecutors repeatedly overruling each other and disagreeing over whether to classify the most serious accusation as rape.

WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said late Wednesday that the organization is trying to keep Assange's location a secret for security reasons. He noted that commentators in the United States and Canada have called for Assange to be hunted down or killed.

Sarah Palin likened Assange to an al-Qaida propagandist and accused him, without offering any proof, of having "blood on his hands."

"Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaida and Taliban leaders?" she asked in a message posted on Facebook.

"I think Assange should be assassinated, actually," Tom Flanagan, a former adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told the CBC.

Flanagan, a U.S.-born professor of political science at the University of Calgary, later apologized.

In Washington, the top Democrat and Republican at the Senate Intelligence Committee called on Attorney General Eric Holder to prosecute Assange for espionage. Committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and vice chairman Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said in a letter Thursday that they believe Assange's behavior falls under the Espionage Act, which makes it a crime to willfully pass on defense information that could hurt the U.S.

U.S. government lawyers are investigating whether Assange can be prosecuted for spying, a senior American defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said earlier this week. WikiLeaks has not said how it obtained the documents, but the government's prime suspect is an Army private, Bradley Manning, who is in the brig on charges of leaking other classified documents to WikiLeaks.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said WikiLeaks is not a news organization and Assange is neither a journalist nor a whistle-blower, but someone with a political agenda.

"I think he's an anarchist," Crowley said. He said Assange is "trying to undermine the international system that enables us to cooperate and collaborate with other governments."

One batch of the latest leaked dispatches -- these from the U.S. Embassy staff in Turkmenistan -- portrays the president of the former Soviet state in Central Asia, Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, as "vain, suspicious, guarded, strict, very conservative, a practiced liar," and "not a very bright guy."

According to another one of the cables, Georgia's ambassador in Rome claimed that Berlusconi was promised a cut of the profits in energy deals with Russia. Berlusconi denied the allegation.

In England, meanwhile, a front-page story in The Guardian alleged that one of the leaked cables showed British politicians trying to keep Parliament in the dark over the storage of American cluster bombs on British territory -- despite an international ban on the weapons. Britain's Foreign Office denied the charge.

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