Feb. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Julian Assange, founder of the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, should be extradited to Sweden from Britain to face questioning over sexual-assault allegations by two women, a U.K. judge ruled.
District Judge Howard Riddle in London rejected claims that Assange won’t get a fair trial in Sweden and that the prosecutor handling the case is a “radical feminist.” Geoffrey Robertson, one of Assange’s lawyers, said he would appeal.
“It does not seem unreasonable to me” that Sweden would request Assange’s presence for questioning “in a matter as serious as this,” Riddle said. “I must order that Mr. Assange be extradited to Sweden.”
Assange was detained in December after Swedish authorities issued a so-called European arrest warrant seeking to question him over the claims of sexual misconduct, which the women said took place in August. Today’s ruling is the first round of what lawyers said will be a long appeal process that may end up being decided by the U.K. Supreme Court. Assange remains free on bail.
The allegations were made as WikiLeaks was condemned for posting thousands of classified U.S. military and diplomatic communications, prompting Assange’s lawyers to say the extradition may be politically motivated. The U.S. is investigating WikiLeaks activities and the hacking of some company websites by supporters of the organization.
“What we saw today at Belmarsh was a rubber stamping process,” Assange said outside Belmarsh Magistrates’ Court after the ruling. “It comes as no surprise. It is nonetheless wrong.”
“There was no consideration during the entire process of the merits of the allegations,” Assange said, and the European arrest warrant process should be changed to address that.
If extradited, Robertson said Assange could eventually be sent to the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and face a death sentence for espionage.
An appeal by the 39-year-old Australian will probably fail because the chance of successfully contesting a European arrest warrant is “very, very small,” said Neill Blundell, a lawyer with Eversheds LLP in London.
“This case isn’t about WikiLeaks,” Blundell said. “Whether we accept or don’t accept that Sweden was being pressured by the U.S., the European arrest warrant is there to streamline the process for one EU member state extraditing someone from another.”
If Assange is extradited, Riddle said in his ruling that sending him on to the U.S. would require the permission of both Sweden and the U.K.
“Mr. Assange would have the protection of the courts in Sweden,” he said. “He would have the protection of the English courts also.”
The Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny, declined to comment on the matter citing the planned appeal.
Robertson had argued that Ny had misused the European arrest warrant by seeking to detain Assange before charging him with anything. Ny said he is wanted for questioning.
“On appeal, they’re going to need more than just a smoke screen issue,” Blundell said. “That’s going to be the tricky thing -- looking at whether the arrest warrant was issued in a procedurally correct manner.”
During hearings earlier this month, Robertson criticized the Swedish justice system and said Assange would be treated unfairly because many rape trials are conducted in private. Riddle said he was confident Assange will get fair treatment.
“If the Swedish practice was in fundamental and flagrant breach of human rights I would expect there to be a body of cases against Sweden confirming that,” Riddle said. “I think the position is more subtle and less stark.”
Assange’s Swedish lawyer, Bjorn Hurtig, lied when he said Ny hadn’t attempted to interview Assange when he was in Sweden, the U.K. judge said. Hurtig later admitted Ny repeatedly told him in September she wanted to interview Assange, Riddle wrote.
“It cannot have slipped his mind,” Riddle said in the judgment. Hurtig spent a week unsuccessfully trying “to contact a very important client about a very important matter. The statement was a deliberate attempt to mislead the court.”
Riddle also rejected arguments Sweden’s prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, hurt Assange’s ability to get fair treatment with comments that turned him into “public enemy number one.”
A defense witness, Brita Sundberg-Weitman, a Swedish lawyer and former judge, failed to produce any further evidence to substantiate her conclusion that Ny “is a well-known radical feminist.”
Assange’s legal team may have damaged their case by focusing too much an personal attacks against Ny and other lawyers involved in the case, said Dan Hyde, a lawyer with Cubism Law in London, who isn’t involved in the case.
Assange’s lawyers were “overdoing the character attacks on the Swedish prosecutors, that left an impression of mud-slinging,” Hyde said.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Scinta at firstname.lastname@example.org