Legal Limbo

05.30.12

British Supreme Court Orders Extradition of WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange

In a long-awaited decision, Britain’s Supreme Court cleared the way for the extradition of the WikiLeaks mastermind to face sexual-abuse allegations in Sweden. Mike Giglio talks to human-rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson about why Assange's true concern is the U.S.

UPDATE: Geoffrey Robertson, QC, the revered human-rights lawyer who played a key role in devising Assange’s legal defense, tells The Daily Beast that while the extradition battle may be lost, its impact has already been felt—and says that Assange’s true concern is the United States:

“[Today’s ruling] was entirely predictable, because to rule in his favor would have partly destroyed the European extradition arrangement. Nonetheless, [Assange’s legal argument] was a valid point. The argument that I devised for him was that to say a prosecutor was a judicial authority was a contradiction in terms. A judicial authority in British, American, and Australian law is a judge—someone who is independent and impartial. But a prosecutor obviously is not, and it’s a dissolution of civil liberties to adopt the unfair systems that Napoleon introduced into Europe, which muddles the distinction. However, the judges were divided, and all agreed that the British Parliament had been misled by ministers who assured it that a judicial authority did mean a judge.

“The argument has kept Mr. Assange free in Britain for 18 months, under house—or at least, mansion-house—arrest. And it enabled him to produce Cablegate, which is of much importance to historians and journalists and helped to spark the Arab Spring with its revelations of corruption in Tunisia and Egypt. Assange must face down these spurious allegations of ‘minor rape’ [another contradiction in terms] made against him in Sweden, but his real anxiety is that the grand jury sitting in Virginia will produce a sealed indictment and the Justice Department will pounce once he gets to Sweden. Sweden has a government that bends to America’s will and has been found guilty of handing out special rendition at the request of the CIA: the Swedish justice system is amenable to government pressure, and he is much more vulnerable in Sweden than he is in the United Kingdom or Australia. He is asking the Australian government to obtain an undertaking from the Swedish government that when its legal system is finished with him, he will be allowed to return to Australia, where he is confident that the courts will deal fairly with any American extradition requests.”

Original Story:

Britain’s Supreme Court ordered Julian Assange to be extradited to Sweden today—but in yet another twist to the hacker’s strange legal saga, his fate could remain in the balance for at least another two weeks.

In its long-awaited decision, the court ruled by a margin of 5–2 that Sweden’s request to extradite Assange had been lawfully made, meaning that the controversial WikiLeaks founder should be returned to Sweden to face allegations of sexual abuse.

Video screenshot

Julian Assange walks out of an interview when asked about rape allegations

After the ruling, Assange’s legal team successfully petitioned for a 14-day window in which to consider challenging the decision, arguing that it may have been based on considerations that were not addressed during the appeal. Speaking on the BBC, Joshua Rozenberg, a legal analyst, called the move “unusual,” adding that it “means there’s everything left to play for still.”

Assange has been under house arrest in Britain during his long battle against extradition, much of it spent at the country estate of the journalist Vaughan Smith, who told The Daily Beast last year that he viewed hosting Assange as  “standing up to the bully.” Assange stands accused of sexually abusing two women in August 2010, which he has denied. Supporters have alleged that the charges are politically motivated, seeing a conspiracy against the man whose leaks have rankled Western governments, particularly the United States.

In a statement last night, WikiLeaks declared itself to be “under serious threat” of legal ramifications in America. “The US, UK, Swedish and Australian governments are engaging in a coordinated effort to extradite its editor-in-chief Julian Assange to the United States, to face espionage charges for journalistic activities,” the statement reads. “For twenty-one months a Grand Jury sitting in the Washington DC area has been meeting on a monthly basis, seeking to prosecute Julian Assange for espionage.”

There have been unconfirmed reports—following recent leaks from Stratfor, the global intelligence company—that a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., has issued a sealed indictment charging Assange with espionage. Louis B. Susman, the U.S. ambassador to Britain, said in February that America would “wait to see how things work out in the British courts” before taking any action.

Julian Knowles, a London-based lawyer who specializes in extradition, told The Daily Beast earlier this year the idea that the Swedish case was a ploy for U.S. extradition was a “fantasy,” saying extradition would be just as easy, if not easier, from London. But Assange and his legal team have continued to paint the case as part of a broader battle with the United States. “If the indictment is unsealed upon Assange's extradition to Sweden he faces further removal from Sweden to the United States,” the WikiLeaks statement said, adding that its associates had been “detained and interrogated at US and UK airports, their equipment confiscated, and attempts have been made to turn them into informants.”

Assange did not attend this morning’s hearing—his lawyers told the court that he was “stuck in traffic”—but supporters were gathered outside the courthouse toting signs, one reading “U.K. courts kiss U.S. ass.” Smith appeared at the court along with Assange allies such as Australian journalist John Pilger and WikiLeaks spokeswoman Kristinn Hrafnsson.

Assange’s challenge was based on the question of whether the Swedish prosecutor who issued his arrest warrant had judicial authority to do so. The warrant was issued in December 2010 after two Swedish women, both former WikiLeaks volunteers, accused Assange of sexual abuse the previous summer, when he was living in and around Stockholm. According to the allegations, consensual sexual encounters with Assange became nonconsensual. The women have alleged four offenses against Assange, according to court documents—one for “sexual coercion,” two for sexual misconduct, and one for “minor rape.” Assange has admitted to having sexual relations with both women. He has not been charged with a crime.

Assange did not attend this morning’s hearing—his lawyers told the court that he was “stuck in traffic”—but sign-toting supporters were gathered outside the courthouse.

The court ruled today that the warrant was lawful, but Dina Rose, Assange’s counsel, was able to buy her client additional time. She argued that “the majority of the court appear to have based their decision on the interpretation of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, on which no argument was heard and no opportunity of making submission was given,” according to a statement issued by the court after this morning’s hearing. The statement added that Rose had been given 14 days to apply to reopen the case on these grounds.

The new deadline means that Assange will remain in legal limbo until at least June 13, with the possibility for further delays. Once a decision to extradite is finalized, according to Knowles, Assange could “be onto a plane to Sweden within 10 days.”