London – A London court ruled on Wednesday that Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, can be extradited to Sweden for questioning over allegations of sexual abuse there last year. He will seek a final appeal to the Britain’s highest court, according to a person close to Mr. Assange.
The decision was the latest chapter in a months-long legal battle that has seen Mr. Assange under house arrest and WikiLeaks temporarily shuttered. In their ruling, two British appeals judges said a European arrest warrant seeking Mr. Assange’s extradition could not “be said to be disproportionate” since it related to “serious sexual offenses,” which Mr. Assange has denied.
A British judge had previously ruled that Mr. Assange should return to Sweden to face allegations of sexual molestation, unlawful coercion and rape made by two WikiLeaks volunteers in Stockholm in August 2010. Wednesday’s ruling came after an appeal by Mr. Assange, who has engaged a series of high-profile lawyers to fight the extradition warrant.
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His lawyers said that the ruling gave Mr. Assange 14 days to decide whether to seek to appeal to Britain’s highest court and that his decision would be the subject of a further court hearing.
“We will consider our next steps in the coming days,” Mr. Assange said in a brief statement to the throng of reporters gathered outside the courtroom. A person close to Mr. Assange said he would seek a hearing, which would be held before the same judge who on Wednesday strongly rejected his appeal. If a further appeal is not granted, Mr. Assange would be extradited to Sweden within 10 days.
Stressing that he “has not been charged with any crime,” Mr. Assange lamented that the terms of the arrest warrant do not allow him to argue extradition based on the substance of the case, which rests on accusations by two women that consensual encounters with Mr. Assange became nonconsensual.
WikiLeaks’ release of hundreds of thousands of classified United States military documents on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and classified State Department diplomatic cables dominated the front pages of newspapers across the world, including The New York Times, last year. Mr. Assange placed himself at the forefront of those releases, he told reporters, as a means of seeking publicity for documents he hoped would reshape the very nature of government.
But since Mr. Assange was briefly jailed last December, before being released on bail and placed under house arrest at the country mansion of a wealthy friend in eastern England, WikiLeaks has foundered. He told a press conference in London last month that it would cease its publishing activities because it lacked money following a blockade on donations to credit card companies like Visa and MasterCard, and the payments services Western Union and PayPal.
In the midst of Mr. Assange’s legal battles, the organization was severely weakened by a spate of defections from its core of specialist computer-programmer volunteers, insiders have said. Many, tired of what they described as Mr. Assange’s eccentricity and imperiousness, have formed their own document leaking sites.
As his legal battles spanned half a dozen court appearances, across three courthouses, Mr. Assange has given dozens of interviews with the rolling country estate as a backdrop. He has condemned Sweden’s strict sexual crimes laws, calling the country “the Saudi Arabia of feminism” and compared himself to the civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.
He has told friends that he refused to return to Stockholm to face questioning because he fears that the country is run by a small cabal of interconnected people who are aligned against him. He believes that he is on trial, he has said, for an alleged affront to all Swedish women, and that court proceedings will thus be tainted.
Mr. Assange appeared for an initial interview with the police in Sweden in 2010, but fled to London before further questioning could be completed, a court here was subsequently told. Swedish prosecutors decided to issue an Interpol red notice and a European arrest warrant to compel him to return.
Protesters, and celebrity supporters like the socialites Jemima Khan and Bianca Jagger, and the journalist John Pilger, have often conflated the case with a battle for free speech. Mr. Assange himself has hinted darkly that government forces might be behind the allegations of sexual wrongdoing as a means of silencing him.