Judge rules Assange must be extradited

Mark Hughes,Crime Correspondent
Friday 25 February 2011 01:00 GMT

Julian Assange criticised the European legal system and claimed he was being "dragged to an uncertain destiny" last night after a judge ruled that he must return to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.

The WikiLeaks founder is accused of sexually assaulting one woman and raping another during a week-long visit to Stockholm in August. A European arrest warrant was issued in December and Mr Assange has fought extradition since handing himself in to the Metropolitan Police in December.

But yesterday at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court, the senior district judge Howard Riddle, who presided over the 39-year-old Australian's three-day extradition hearing earlier this month, ruled that he must return to Sweden to face prosecutors there.

Mr Assange's legal team immediately announced they would be appealing. They have a week to lodge their objections. Outside court, Mr Assange once again spoke out against what he and his supporters see as a baseless allegation. He attacked the European arrest warrant system and described the procedure which could see him extradited as "nonsense".

He said: "It cannot be the case that simply filling out two pages with someone's name and a suspicion, not a charge, can lead to their extradition without any consideration of the charges against them.

"To take someone from the UK, from their supporters, from their relatives and thrust them into a foreign land where they do not speak the language... is a very grave trend and such matters deserve more than a two-page form filled out by a member of the bureaucracy.

"Because European nations co-operate with each other and are trying to form a better union does not mean that they are all the same. It does not mean that police, prosecutors or bureaucrats can be or could be the coercive power to drag people off to an uncertain destiny."

His lawyer, Mark Stephens, described the judgment as an example of "tick box justice". Throughout his hearing earlier this month, Mr Assange's legal team had used various arguments in an attempt to justify why he should not be sent to Sweden.

They claimed that the prosecutor there was unauthorised to sign the arrest warrant, that he would not receive a fair trial and that the Swedish authorities could have interviewed him before he left the country.

The final point was undermined by Mr Assange's Swedish lawyer, who admitted that the prosecutor, Marianne Ny, had tried on several occasions to arrange an interview but had been unable to contact the WikiLeaks founder. Bjorn Hurtig left this crucial detail out of his original witness statement, admitting it only under cross-examination.

In his judgment yesterday Mr Riddle called Mr Hurtig an "unreliable witness", adding: "I do not accept this was a genuine mistake. It cannot have slipped his mind...The statement was a deliberate attempt to mislead the court."

Rejecting the defence's claims, Mr Riddle said it was not for the court to decide whether Ms Ny was authorised to sign a European arrest warrant, but for the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which had already decided that Ms Ny was eligible.

He said he was satisfied that Mr Assange was wanted for prosecution, not merely questioning as the defence claimed. And he said that the crimes for which Mr Assange is wanted in Sweden would also amount to crimes in Britain and are therefore extradition offences.


What will Assange do now?

He has seven days in which to lodge an appeal which will be heard at the High Court. His legal team had already indicated their intention to appeal even before yesterday's judgment. They reiterated that desire in and outside court yesterday. If, for some reason, they choose to abandon this strategy or fail to lodge the papers in time, Mr Assange will be extradited to Sweden within 10 days.

On what grounds will he appeal?

They can appeal against any points raised in yesterday's judgment. They are likely to focus on the argument that to send Mr Assange to Sweden and subject him to a trial behind closed doors – something the judge accepted yesterday would probably happen – would be a breach of his human rights.

If he loses the appeal, will he definitely be sentback to Sweden?

No. He can still apply for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court – but cases there must focus on points of law rather than the facts of the case. Should that also fail he can take his case to the European courts.

Will he face a trial if he is sent to Sweden?

Not necessarily. The investigation is still in its infancy and Mr Assange has not yet been charged. However, as the court heard this month, it is extremely likely that he will be prosecuted should he return to Sweden, which, given the length of time the appeals process is likely to take, could be next year oreven later.

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