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The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, usually moves around a lot, but for now, he's stuck in a prison in London. Assange is fighting extradition to Sweden over allegations of sex crimes.

And NPR's Carrie Johnson reports this is only the beginning of his international legal odyssey.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Julian Assange has devoted years to exposing government secrets, but the controversial editor of WikiLeaks is now devoting all of his energy to fighting extradition to Sweden, where police want to question him about rape allegations. Legal scholars say that could be a losing battle.

Professor LINDA MALONE (Director, Human Security Law Program, College of William and Mary): There's very clear grounds in extradition law for challenging extradition if you think you're going to be persecuted.

JOHNSON: That's Linda Malone. She studies international law at the College of William and Mary.

Prof. MALONE: Most of the time that persecution is not based on any kind of political motivation so much as religious, ethnic and other types of persecution.

JOHNSON: Which doesn't seem to be a factor for Assange.

Experts say extradition between European countries on rape allegations happens all the time. The legal maneuvering overseas shows Assange hasn't completely evaded the law, and American prosecutors are on the case too.

Tim Matusheski has done some legal work for WikiLeaks. He says the FBI and a top national security prosecutor visited him about a month ago.

Mr. TIM MATUSHESKI (Lawyer): They wanted to interview me about WikiLeaks and whatever I could tell them that was not privileged. And I cooperated, and I did meet with them. I don't like to say anything that may be construed as interfering with any kind of investigation or anything.

JOHNSON: Matusheski didn't want to answer questions about what he told the Justice Department team, but he says he got a sense the government was eager to bring a criminal case against Julian Assange.

Any Justice Department case isn't going to be easy. The first legal tool that comes to mind is the World War I-era Espionage Act, but government lawyers will have a hard time using it because Assange is likely to argue he's a reporter who deserves protection under the First Amendment.

Pat Rowan used to prosecute espionage cases.

Mr. PAT ROWAN (Lawyer): There could be ways that the information was shipped, the way it was taken off the government systems that would lend itself to a specific charge, but I would be very surprised if they could come up with a case that would allow them to work around the possible First Amendment defense.

JOHNSON: Rowan says that the Justice Department is looking at other laws beyond the Espionage Act. Prosecutors are probably analyzing conspiracy and theft laws and trying to come up with evidence that Assange was directly involved in soliciting the leak of secret information.

U.S. senators from both political parties have been pressing the attorney general to move quickly against WikiLeaks, and they're offering to rewrite the Espionage Law if that would help. But Justice sources say that no criminal indictment against Assange is imminent, and Rowan says there's no simple fix to the issue of whether WikiLeaks is a media organization.

Mr. ROWAN: There's a sense in which, you know, hey, he's detained in London and we all know what happened so why haven't they charged it? But in fact, they need to work their way through an issue like that.

JOHNSON: Assange's supporters in the U.S. say all the talk about criminal investigations distracts from the impact of what WikiLeaks has revealed.

Julie Turner is a lawyer in California. She's also done some work for WikiLeaks.

Mr. JULIE TURNER (Lawyer): It's time to stop kicking WikiLeaks around and start looking at what it is that's been disclosed. You know, in a democratic society, we need the Fourth Estate in order to keep the citizenry informed so that we can actually be intelligent in running our democracy.

JOHNSON: Assange is due in court again in London next week. And depending on the legal process, it could be a while before he gets to Sweden and even longer before he faces any American justice.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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