Assange fears of trial in US justified, says expert

Julian Assange's claim in court yesterday that extradition to Sweden is the first step to him facing the death penalty in the US may have seemed like a melodramatic gambit, but there is every indication that moves are under way to bring charges against him in America.

The latest sign of an investigation by the US Justice Department gathering pace has been a subpoena demanding the Twitter account details of Mr Assange and several other people associated with WikiLeaks. The aim, it is believed, is to establish that Mr Assange had conspired with Private First Class Bradley Manning to gather and leak hundreds of thousands of classified US State Department cables.

The first amendment of the US constitution would make it extremely difficult to successfully prosecute Mr Assange if he was merely the recipient of information from Pfc Manning. The chances of conviction would improve significantly if it can be proved that he had solicited the leaks.

Robert Feldman, a US lawyer specialising in security cases, said after yesterday's hearing at Woolwich Crown Court: "Federal investigators are prepared to wait and see what happens on the Swedish extradition. There are strong reports that a grand jury has been empanelled and any indictment they produce can be sealed. Assange will have this hanging over him while he fights to stay out of Sweden."

Mr Assange's ongoing legal battles have also taken their toll on the website he created. In recent weeks the number of leaks emanating from the site has slowed to a trickle amid a barrage of online attacks, financial difficulties and the threat of prosecution. Where once donations to the website were spent hiring staff and server space, much of it now goes towards Mr Assange's legal defence.

However, Kristinn Hrafnsson, an Icelandic journalist and WikiLeaks spokesperson, has insisted that the website will operate with or without its founder and promised to take legal action against companies like Amazon, Visa, MasterCard and PayPal which have refused to deal with WikiLeaks.

Mr Assange said yesterday that the leaks would now increase and hinted he was working with new partners: "We are stepping up our publishing for matters related to Cablegate and other materials. Those will shortly be occurring through our newspaper partners around the world... and some human rights organisations."

Whether WikiLeaks can continue will be decided once the next big leak is revealed. Last month Mr Assange claimed he was planning to release leaks from a key US bank in the new year. The identity of the bank has not been revealed, but in a 2009 interview he said he was in possession of a 5 gigabyte hard drive belonging to a senior executive at the Bank of America.