The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to Sweden, but his extradition was put on hold to give his lawyers a chance to re-open the case.
Britain’s highest court rejected the argument from Assange’s lawyers that the Swedish prosecutor who issued the arrest warrant over sex crime allegations was not entitled to do so.
The seven judges were split five to two but the majority ruling was that the Swedish prosecutor was a rightful judicial authority and therefore allowed to issue the warrant for the Internet whistleblower.
Delivering the judgement, Supreme Court president Nicholas Phillips said: “The request for Mr Assange’s extradition has been lawfully made and his appeal against extradition is accordingly dismissed.”
But in an unexpected twist, Assange’s lawyer Dinah Rose asked the judge for 14 days to consider whether to apply to reopen the case on the grounds that the judgement referred to material not argued in the court.
The judge granted the request, which is highly unusual in the three-year history of the Supreme Court.
Assange, a 40-year-old Australian former computer hacker, was not in the central London court to hear the judgement. One of his supporters, journalist John Pilger, said he was “stuck in traffic”.
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.
“They’ve allowed us two weeks to 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, that was never addressed in court,” she told journalists.
The point in question is the interpretation of the Vienna Convention on the law of treaties.
“It’s a procedural point… that has arisen curiously as a result of their judgement, because the majority have based their decision on the Vienna Convention, which was never addressed in the hearing, one way or another, by either side,” Peirce added.
If Assange fails to have the case reopened, 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 women say he raped and sexually assaulted him.
Assange’s mother Christine said ahead of the judgement: “It’s a 24-hour nightmare because we know he is not safe and the biggest governments in the world are gunning for him.”
She told Australian television that the charges against her son were unfounded but feared that if he was sent to Sweden he could be held “incommunicado, in solitary confinement, before he is even questioned or charged”.
Assange, whose website enraged Washington by releasing a flood of state and military secrets, has been living under tight restrictions on his movement for 540 days.
He has been fighting deportation since his arrest in London in December 2010 on a European arrest warrant.
The Supreme Court is his final avenue of appeal, after two lower courts ruled he should be sent to Sweden for questioning.
Swedish authorities argued before the hearing that if his appeal is granted it could throw the fast-track European arrest warrant system into turmoil, with implications across the continent.
“It is prosecutors who issue arrest warrants (in Sweden). End of story,” Karin Rosander of the Swedish prosecuting authority told AFP.
The white-haired former hacker 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.
One week ago, Assange attended a film screening in London wearing a kevlar Guy Fawkes mask.
“This may be my last time in public, so I thought I should start with a situation where you won’t be able to see me anymore,” said Assange, who since December 2010 has been forced to report to police daily and wear an electronic ankle tag.