LONDON, May 31 – Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to Sweden, but put his deportation on hold to give his lawyers a final chance to reopen the case.
The court, which handed down its decision on Wednesday after an 18-month legal marathon, rejected Assange’s argument that the Swedish prosecutor who issued the arrest warrant over sex crime allegations was not entitled to do so.
“The request for Mr Assange’s extradition has been lawfully made and his appeal against extradition is accordingly dismissed,” Supreme Court president Nicholas Phillips said as he delivered the ruling to a hushed courtroom.
The seven judges were split five to two but their majority ruling was that the prosecutor was a rightful judicial authority, and therefore allowed to issue the warrant for the Internet whistleblower.
But in a new twist, Assange’s lawyer Dinah Rose asked for 14 days to consider whether to apply to reopen the case, on the grounds that the judgment referred to material that was not mentioned during the last hearing in February.
The judge granted the request, which is highly unusual in the three-year history of the Supreme Court.
“With the agreement of the respondent, the required period for extradition shall not commence until 13th June 2012,” the Supreme Court said in a statement.
Assange, a 40-year-old Australian national, was not in the central London court for the judgement. One of his supporters, journalist John Pilger, said he was “stuck in traffic” with his mother, who flew in from Australia for the verdict.
The Swedish lawyer for the two women who accuse Assange of rape and sexual assault said he would be extradited eventually.
“The decision was what we expected… It’s unfortunate that it has been delayed further, but he will ultimately be extradited,” Claes Borgstroem told AFP.
Assange is at present wanted for questioning over the sex crime allegations, but Borgstroem said he expected an indictment perhaps within a month after he gets to Sweden.
Assange, whose website enraged Washington by releasing a flood of state and military secrets in 2010, has been living under tight restrictions on his movement for 540 days, including wearing an ankle tag and reporting daily to police.
He has said he fears his extradition would eventually lead to his transfer to the United States, where US soldier Bradley Manning is facing a court-martial over accusations that he handed documents to WikiLeaks.
The US ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich denied there was any plan to seek his extradition from Sweden.
“It’s not something that the US cares about. It’s not interested in it,” he told Australian state broadcaster ABC in comments aired Thursday.
“And frankly if he is in Sweden then there is a less robust extradition relationship than there is between the US and the UK,” he said. “So I think it’s one of those narratives that has been made up. There is nothing to it.”
Close US ally Australia has come under pressure from Assange’s supporters to provide him with more assistance, after Prime Minister Julia Gillard previously slammed WikiLeaks as “grossly irresponsible”.
Assange’s mother Christine accused Canberra of failing to help her son.
“(They have been) absolutely useless, in fact contrary to help, they’ve done everything they can to smear Julian and hand him up to the US,” she told the ABC from London.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr rejected the criticism, saying Assange was receiving regular visits from consular staff.
“He gets the full Australian consulate support available to any Australian caught up in the legal processes of another country,” he said, adding however that Australia can’t “interfere with the legal processes of another country”.
Outside court, Assange’s principal lawyer Gareth Peirce confirmed that the extradition was stayed while his legal team considers whether to apply to reopen the case, although the judgement still stands.
If Assange fails to have the case reopened in Britain, he still has the option of a last-ditch appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Assange does not deny that he had sex with two WikiLeaks volunteers in Sweden while attending a WikiLeaks seminar, but insists the sex was consensual and argues there are political motives behind the attempts to extradite him.
The former computer hacker has been fighting deportation since his arrest in London in December 2010 on the European arrest warrant issued by Sweden.
The Supreme Court is his final avenue of appeal under British law, after two lower courts ruled he should be sent to Sweden for questioning.