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Pressure mounts on UK officials to send Assange to Sweden

LONDON — More than 70 British lawmakers have urged the government to make sure that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faces Swedish justice if prosecutors there reopen a rape allegation against him.

The lawmakers signed a letter late Friday urging Home Secretary Sajid Javid to “do everything you can to champion action that will ensure Julian Assange can be extradited to Sweden in the event Sweden makes an extradition request.”

Sweden suspended its investigation into possible serious sexual misconduct against Assange two years ago because he was beyond their reach while he was living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London with political asylum status.

He was arrested Thursday after Ecuador withdrew his asylum. Assange is now in Belmarsh Prison in southeast London, waiting to be sentenced for jumping bail in Britain and facing an extradition request from the United States on charges of conspiring to break into a Pentagon computer.

WikiLeaks says he will fight the U.S. extradition request and has been meeting with his legal team to plan his defense.

READ MORE: The charges against Julian Assange, explained

If Britain receives competing extradition requests, lawyers say the Home Secretary would have some leeway in deciding which takes priority. Considerations usually include which request came first and which alleged crime is more serious.

Most of the lawmakers who signed the letter are from the opposition Labour Party, whose leader, Jeremy Corbyn, wants Britain to refuse to send Assange to the U.S. After Assange’s arrest, Corbyn praised him for exposing U.S. atrocities committed in Iraq and Afghanistan when WikiLeaks released tens of thousands of confidential U.S. documents in 2010.

Some Conservative Party members are also backing the move. Prominent lawmaker Alistair Burt, a former Foreign Office minister, said the “minimizing of the issues in relation to sexual assault are really quite disturbing.”

He said the testimony of the women who have been involved makes it “essential” that Assange face justice, to either be cleared or convicted.

British politicians are free to lobby the government for a certain course of action, but it’s up to the courts to decide whether the U.S. request for Assange’s extradition — and a possible future request from Sweden — should be honored.

The Home Secretary, a senior Cabinet official, has some leeway to block extradition under certain specific circumstances, including cases where a person facing extradition might face capital punishment or torture in that country.

Assange, 47, has denied the sexual misconduct allegations, which he claims are politically motivated. He has not had a chance to enter a plea in response to the U.S. charge, but he has claimed that all of his WikiLeaks actions are those of a legitimate journalist.

When he took up residence inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2012, it was to avoid answering the sexual allegations against him in Sweden, which had sought his extradition for questioning. He also sought refuge because of fears that Sweden would ultimately extradite him to the U.S.

Swedish prosecutors opened an investigation into Assange after two women accused him of sexual offenses during a 2010 visit to Sweden.

Some of the sexual misconduct accusations are no longer viable because their time ran out. But Swedish prosecutors have said a rape case could be reactivated before the statute of limitations for that ends in August 2020.

After Assange’s arrest, Swedish prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson was tapped to look into a request from a lawyer for one of the accusers, to find out whether the case can be pursued.

Elisabeth Massi Fritz, the lawyer for the woman who reported being raped by Assange, told The Associated Press that she would “do everything” to have the Swedish case reopened so Assange can be extradited to Sweden and prosecuted.

The extradition process is not swift, and Assange could appeal several times if decisions go against him. It’s expected that it would take a year or longer for him to be sent to the United States or possibly to Sweden even if he ultimately loses in court.

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Associated Press writer Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark contributed.

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