LONDON — Britain’s highest court ruled on Wednesday that the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, should be deported to Sweden to face allegations of sexual abuse there, the culmination of an 18-month legal battle.
By a 5-2 vote, the Supreme Court denied Mr. Assange’s appeal. The decision took less than five minutes to be read by Nicholas Phillips, the 74-year-old president of the court, in one of the most important decisions in his three years in the position and just months before his retirement. All seven judges were present.
The ruling turned on whether the Swedish prosecutor who made the extradition request was a competent “judicial authority” under the terms of the European Extradition Treaty. Judge Phillips, who voted with the majority, said the question “has not been easy to resolve.” The finding that the Swedish prosecutor was a competent authority resulted in the court’s decision that the extradition request “has been lawfully made,” he said.
Mr. Assange, who was delayed by heavy traffic, was not present for the decision, but there was an audible sigh from WikiLeaks supporters in the court as the ruling was read. Dinah Rose, one of Mr. Assange’s lawyers, immediately asked for a two-week delay in implementation of the decision, saying that the court appeared to have reached its decision on a fine point of European law that had not been raised by either side at an earlier Supreme Court hearing on the case.
The court granted that request, extending still further a case that has wound slowly through the justice systems since the Swedish extradition request was made in December 2010.
Gareth Peirce, another lawyer for Mr. Assange, said that once the Supreme Court had considered that point, the Assange team would have seven days to formulate an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. At that point, only a specific stay from the European court would prevent Mr. Assange from being extradited.
In coming to their decision, the judges cited the specific meaning of “autorité judiciare,” the French legal phrase from which “judicial authority” was translated into British law.
The British government is now expected to announce an extradition date within 10 days. On the appointed date, Mr. Assange will be taken to a British airport and handed over to the Swedish authorities for transfer to Stockholm.
Though the Supreme Court is Britain’s highest, British prosecutors, acting for the Swedish authorities, have said Mr. Assange may have a final recourse to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. If the Strasbourg court declines to take his case, he will have no choice but to return to Sweden for questioning on the sex allegations, likely within days.
Mr. Peirce said outside the court that the Assange legal team will “put in a written submission on the fact that the majority of judges have decided on a basis that was never argued in court by anyone,” referring to the citation the judges made of the interpretation of the words “judicial authority” in the Vienna Convention. Barely 12 hours before the Supreme Court’s ruling, WikiLeaks issued a statement asserting that Mr. Assange faced early moves by the United States to extradite him on espionage charges from Britain, Sweden or Australia, depending on Mr. Assange’s whereabouts.
“WikiLeaks is under serious threat,” WikiLeaks said. “The U.S., U.K., 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 cited reports that the Obama administration has obtained a sealed indictment charging Mr. Assange with espionage, as well as a range of other activities that WikiLeaks said pointed to plans to move against Mr. Assange as soon as the British court proceedings were completed. The preparations include the empaneling of special task forces at the Pentagon, the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and the State Department, and secret subpoenas it said had been served on Google, Twitter and other online services to obtain the “private data” of WikiLeaks staff and supporters, it said.
In effect, the four-page WikiLeaks document depicted the decision in London as a prelude to a much grimmer challenge awaiting Mr. Assange beyond his 18-month battle to avoid being extradited to Sweden on the sex abuse charges. Lawyers in Sweden have said that he would likely face a stiff fine, or at the most a brief prison term, if he were convicted on the Swedish charges.
But extradition to the United States — involving what would almost certainly be another lengthy legal battle, whether in Britain, Sweden or Australia, Mr. Assange’s native country — would confront him with the potential for a much harsher punishment. If found guilty on espionage charges, he could face a life sentence in a maximum-security prison under American law.
The WikiLeaks document was speculative, since the Obama administration has never said how it planned to act once a final British court ruling was handed down. The United States ambassador to Britain, Louis B. Susman, has said that the Justice Department would “wait to see how things work out in the British courts” before making any move, and there have been reports in the past year of confidential meetings between American officials and the governments in London, Stockholm and Canberra concerning the Assange case.
According to leaked e-mails from the United States-based global intelligence company Stratfor, which has close links to the American government, a sealed indictment was issued in January 2011 against Mr. Assange by a federal grand jury sitting secretly in Alexandria, Virginia. The report was not confirmed by American officials.
Mr. Assange himself has repeatedly said that he regarded the Swedish sex allegations as a prelude to an American attempt to extradite him to the United States, and he has expressed anxiety about what, if any, option he would have, even if he beat the Swedish charges, of finding sanctuary elsewhere in the world where he would be beyond the reach of American law.
That fear found expression in the WikiLeaks statement ahead of the court decision in London. The statement said that Mr. Assange had been unable “to take steps” to avoid extradition to the United States — a phrase that appeared to mean that he could not leave Britain to seek a safe haven elsewhere because he has been detained for over 500 days under what amounted to a loose form of house arrest in Britain.
The British Supreme Court took nearly four months to consider Mr. Assange’s final appeal, the latest in a string of high-profile actions he has taken to avoid being returned to Sweden where two former WikiLeaks volunteers accuse him of “four offenses of unlawful coercion and sexual misconduct including rape,” according to the court’s account.
The charges refer to 10 days during August 2010, when Mr. Assange, then in the midst of releasing hundreds of thousands of classified United States military and diplomatic documents, when by his own admission he had sexual relations with the two women in Stockholm and a nearby town. The women subsequently made complaints that suggested what began as consensual encounters turned non-consensual. Mr. Assange appeared for an initial interview with the police there that month, but fled to London before further questioning could be completed, a court here was subsequently told. He was briefly jailed in December 2010 when Swedish authorities issued a European arrest warrant for his return. He has since been under tight bail conditions that have included a curfew, travel restrictions, regular reports to local police and electronic tagging.
The activist and hacker, who will turn 41 in July, has always maintained his innocence and has railed at the allegations with characteristic defiance in a series of interviews and messages on Twitter. Sweden, he has said, is the “Saudi Arabia of feminism,” and his lawyers have spoken darkly of a “honey trap,” perhaps intended to thwart Mr. Assange’s ambition to leak further government documents.
The case before the British courts ultimately rested on a narrow point of law. At the appeal hearings in February, Dinah Rose, a lawyer representing Mr. Assange, argued that the Swedish prosecutors who had issued an arrest warrant for her client did not constitute “a judicial authority” with the power to extradite him. But Clare Montgomery, arguing for the prosecution, said having prosecutors issue such warrants was “a relatively common feature of Continental practice.”
WikiLeaks has not released any significant material for more than a year, since a spate of defections weakened its submission and processing systems, and action taken under American government pressure by American credit card and online payment companies effectively starved WikiLeaks of what had been a global flow of donations.
Mr. Assange has recently begun broadcasting a talk chat-show on the international Russia Today network Russia Today, which is financed by the Russian government. His guests have included the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
WikiLeaks has not released any significant material for more than a year, since a spate of defections weakened its submission and processing systems. Mr. Assange has recently begun broadcasting a talk chat-show on the international Russia Today network, which is financed by the Russian government. His guests have included the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
NOTE: All photo captions by the editorial team.