© Reuters
London - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is hiring a new legal team to take a less confrontational approach in his next British court appeal against a Swedish request he be extradited for questioning in a sexual misconduct case.

Two legal sources told Reuters Assange had split with Mark Stephens, a prominent British media attorney. Stephens was one of two principal lawyers who represented Assange earlier this year at a court hearing at which his initial appeal against the Swedish extradition request was rejected by a London judge. Replacing Stephens is prominent human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce. She has represented accused militants in high-profile cases, including former prisoners held by the United States at its Guantanamo, Cuba, detention center, and the "Guildford Four," a group of Irish citizens whose conviction in an alleged IRA bomb plot was overturned after they spent years in prison.

Assange has become the public face of WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy group that infuriated Washington last year by publishing secret military and diplomatic cables. He has said he believes the Swedish case is politically motivated. Earlier this week, left-wing political activist and former California State Senator Tom Hayden wrote in The Nation, a liberal American magazine, that the defense team that Assange apparently abandoned had "disparaged" Sweden's legal system, while his new lawyers are likely to take a less aggressive approach. "Extensive interviews I conducted last week revealed that the previous Assange legal team had created puzzlement, loss of confidence, and even antagonism in Sweden by their attacks on Swedish justice.... The legal strategy has backfired by alienating not only mainstream Swedish opinion but also some among the left and in the peace movement," Hayden wrote. By contrast, Hayden said Peirce had told him she intended to take a more conciliatory approach to the extradition case, in which Assange is wanted for questioning by Swedish prosecutors about allegations by two women that he engaged in unwanted unprotected sex with them while visiting Sweden last year. "Each of the human beings involved deserves respect and consideration. It is hoped that whatever steps as are required to be taken in the future will be taken thoughtfully, with sensitivity and with such respect," Hayden said Peirce wrote to him.

Peirce did not immediately reply to a request for comment e-mailed to her at her London law firm. During his first, unsuccessful challenge to the Swedish extradition request last February,Assange's legal team, led by Stephens and human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson, presented Swedish witnesses who questioned the bona fides and motives of Swedish authorities involved in prosecuting Assange. Robertson also argued that Assange would be denied a fair trial if returned to Sweden and formally charged with sexual misconduct offences, because in Sweden such cases are heard behind closed doors and politicians serve with judges as lay assessors who help decide a defendant's guilt or innocence. A source close to Assange's former legal team argued that the team's aggressive approach had put the Swedes on notice about the sensitivity of the case, laying the groundwork for a more effective defense if Assange is extradited to Sweden.

The source said that although Robertson still is participating in Assange's defense, it was likely Assange would be represented by a different barrister when his team makes legal arguments appealing the lower British court's extradition ruling to two British High Court judges. A two day hearing on the appeal is scheduled to begin July 12. After a brief spell in prison following his arrest by British authorities at Sweden's request, Assange was released on bail and has been living under court-imposed restrictions at a country mansion.