London – A British court on Thursday ordered Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, to be extradited to Sweden to face accusations of sexual abuse. His lawyers have seven days to appeal the ruling and immediately indicated that they would so.
Mr. Assange, dressed in the blue suit he has worn to previous hearings, sat impassively as the decision was read. He is currently free on bail and the court continued that, subject to conditions which were being discussed.
Judge Howard Riddle, in his ruling, said that allegations brought by two women qualified as extraditable offenses and that the warrant seeking Mr. Assange’s return to Sweden for questioning was valid.
The verdict marks a turning point in the three-month battle in the British courts and the media against what Mr. Assange, his legal team and his celebrity supporters say is a conspiracy to stop WikiLeaks and its campaign to expose government and corporate secrets.
The case has been fought against the backdrop of the group’s highest-profile operation yet — the release of a quarter of a million confidential American diplomatic cables that became the basis of articles by news organizations worldwide, including The New York Times.
WikiLeaks supporters, many of whom contend that the case against Mr. Assange is retribution for the cables’ release, have mobbed courthouses over the course of six acrimonious hearings, chanting, “We love you, Julian.” Mr. Assange was initially denied bail and briefly jailed after defying a judge’s request to provide an address.
Swedish prosecutors argued that Mr. Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, must return to Stockholm to face accusations by two women who say that he sexually abused them last August. Under Sweden’s strict sexual-crimes laws, he is accused of two counts of sexual molestation, one count of unlawful coercion and one count of rape. His accusers, both WikiLeaks volunteers, have said that their sexual encounters with Mr. Assange started out as consensual but turned nonconsensual.
Mr. Assange has said the accusations are “incredible lies,” and he has referred to Sweden as “the Saudi Arabia of feminism.”
Judge Riddle said on Thursday that if there have been abuses in Sweden, “the right place for these to be examined and remedied is in the Swedish trial system.”
Mr. Assange has also denied accusations by the Swedish authorities that he fled the country in September rather than surrender to the police; he says he left Sweden with permission. And he has denounced the leaks of two Swedish police documents that provided graphic details of the accusations.
Mr. Assange, and his lawyers have signaled their intent to take their fight to Britain’s highest courts, and even to the European Court of Human Rights. In adjourning a hearing earlier this month to make his decision, Judge Riddle said with a note of resignation that whatever he decided would “perhaps inevitably be appealed.”
The long and costly legal battle has left Mr. Assange isolated in the country house of a wealthy friend, and he is electronically monitored as a condition of his bail.
During the legal fight, many of his closest colleagues have defected from WikiLeaks, and a dozen of them formed a rival Web site, OpenLeaks. The United States Justice Department, meanwhile, has subpoenaed his Twitter account as part of an investigation that could lead to espionage charges.
In one of the frequent interviews from his friend’s house, Mr. Assange compared himself to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In a recorded speech played this month at a rally in Melbourne, Australia, his adopted hometown, he went further, comparing the struggles of WikiLeaks to those of African-Americans who fought for equal rights in the 1950s, of protesters who sought an end to the Vietnam War in the ‘60s and of the feminist and environmental movements. “For the Internet generation,” he said, “this is our challenge, and this is our time.”
Mr. Assange is also working on his autobiography, which he has said will be worth $1.7 million in publishing deals. “I don’t want to write this book, but I have to,” he said in a December interview with The Sunday Times of London, explaining that his legal costs had reached more than $300,000. “I need to defend myself and to keep WikiLeaks afloat.”
The book, he said, will detail his “global struggle to force a new relationship between the people and their governments.” He said he hoped the book, due out in April, “will become one of the unifying documents of our generation.”
This month, in another fund-raising effort, he organized what he called a “dinner for free speech,” encouraging online supporters to donate to his defense and dine with friends while watching a video message he had recorded. On a Web site to promote the idea, where he was pictured holding a wine glass aloft, he was quoted as declaring, “There are four things that cannot be concealed for long, the sun, the moon, the truth — and dessert!”
WikiLeaks, though unable to process and release new material, has continued to post classified United States diplomatic cables from the cache of the more than 250,000 it has obtained. Recent examples have included documents concerning the opulent lifestyle of the family of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. The documents were widely disseminated during the revolution that ousted Mr. Ben Ali and started a wave of protests in the Arab world.
In recent weeks, some of Mr. Assange’s supporters, eager to see WikiLeaks operating with its founder’s full attention, have been echoing a question asked by a judge at one of the initial hearings in the case. “If he is so keen to clear his name,” the judge, Justice Duncan Ouseley, asked in December, “what stops a voluntary return to Sweden?”
Mr. Assange told friends in Britain he feared that if he returned to Sweden he would be extradited to the United States and perhaps be detained at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, or executed. But one of his former WikiLeaks colleagues said in an interview that he thought Mr. Assange’s reason was more mundane.
The colleague, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who is one of the OpenLeaks founders, told reporters last week that when Mr. Assange first heard about the sexual abuse allegations in late August, “he was not concerned about the United States.”
“He was very scared of going to prison in Sweden,” Mr. Domscheit-Berg said, “which he thought might happen.” Such charges carry a maximum sentence of four years and no minimum sentence.
Richard Berry contributed reporting from Paris.
This article “London Court Grants Swedish Request to Extradite Assange” originally appeared at The New York Times.
© 2011 The New York Times Company
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