Julian Assange plea after extradition defeat
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, will be extradited to Sweden to answer accusations of rape and sexual assault, a judge has ruled, bringing to an close the first stage of what is now likely to be a lengthy legal battle.
Assange, who has been fighting extradition since being arrested in Britain in December, must face interrogation in Sweden on the sex assault claims, ruled chief magistrate Howard Riddle, rejecting arguments that the prosecutor seeking his extradition had behaved illegally and was unqualified to issue a warrant, and that he would not receive a fair trial.
But if the judgment had been widely anticipated by both sides, the Australian’s decision to appeal against the ruling was, he told reporters afterwards, never in question. “What we saw today was a rubber-stamping process. It came as no surprise, but is nonetheless wrong. Of course, we always knew we would appeal.”
He now has seven days to lodge an appeal, otherwise extradition would automatically take place within 10 days. His solicitor, Mark Stephens, who called the ruling an example of “tick-box justice”, insisted he was “still hopeful that the matter will be resolved in this country. We still remain very optimistic about our opportunities on appeal.”
Outside court Assange, who remains on bail subject to curfew conditions, preferred not to assert his innocence of the accusations but to appeal instead to public opinion in Sweden and internationally over what he sought to portray as an unjust legal system.
In an impassioned denunciation of a mechanism that “drags people off to an uncertain destiny” on the basis of no more than “a two-page form filled out by a member of the bureaucracy”, Assange appealed to his supporters to challenge the system of European arrest warrants (EAWs), by which extradition requests are fast-tracked between EU member states.
Challenging that system, he said, would “make the ridiculous time that I have spent on this nonsense” worthwhile.
He also questioned why the US ambassador to Britain had made comments relating to the case to a BBC journalist: “What does the US have to do with a Swedish extradition case?” Assange fears that the American government may seek his onward extradition on possible charges relating to WikiLeaks’ publication of leaked US embassy cables.
Assange has never been charged with any offence relating to accusations made by two Swedish women in August while he was visiting Stockholm, nor has he been formally interrogated in connection with all four of the alleged crimes of rape and sexual assault. His lawyers had argued that this meant the EAW, issued by prosecutor Marianne Ny, was not legal. They also maintained that the alleged offences would not be illegal in the UK, and that a “secret” rape trial would be a breach of Assange’s human rights.
Riddle dismissed the defence arguments, however, in a judgment that was damning in its criticism of Bjorn Hurtig, the Australian’s Swedish lawyer. Hurtig acknowledged during a three-day hearing earlier this month that his witness statement, in which he maintained Ny had “made no effort” to interview Assange before he left Sweden, was untrue.
Riddle said: “He says he realised the mistake the night before giving evidence. I do not accept that this was a genuine mistake. It cannot have slipped his mind. The statement was a deliberate attempt to mislead the court.”
In fact, said Riddle, the prosecutor had made “constant attempts” to question Assange between 21 and 30 September, when Hurtig said he was alerted that Assange had left the country.
As Assange did not give evidence, Riddle could not say whether the WikiLeaks chief had known that the prosecutor was trying to contact him, but “it would not have been an unreasonable assumption from the facts (albeit not necessarily an accurate one) that Mr Assange was deliberately avoiding interrogation in the period before he left Sweden”.
The untruth in Hurtig’s statement in turn “fatally undermined” the evidence of two other defence expert witnesses who had been briefed by him, said Riddle.
The judge also addressed the defence argument that public comments made by the Swedish prime minister about the case had vilified Assange “as an enemy of the Swedish state”. The prosecution, he noted, had suggested that those comments “may have been a response to comments made publicly on the steps of this court by the defence team here. Certainly the conventional wisdom is that prosecutors, lawyers and politicians are best advised not to comment on a case until it is over. Sometimes public comment damages the cause more than it helps.”
With the preliminary stage of his case at its conclusion, Assange emerged alone, unlike at previous hearings where he has been flanked by his lawyers, to address his supporters. He said: “I call on you to make this bigger than me. Take this case and bring it back home. Make it your case and your own virtue.”
He was calling on Swedes, he said “not to be scared” to speak out about legal abuses of which they were aware, and Swedish newspaper editors to “let your bravest journalists speak”. They are now likely to have ample opportunity.
What happens next?
Given what they consider to be the “constraints” of the European arrest warrant mechanism, Julian Assange and his legal team said they had expected to lose the extradition case and were already preparing to appeal before the judgment.
Appeal papers must be lodged within seven days, but it is likely that a hearing requiring the WikiLeaks founder’s attendance will not take place for some months.
Mark Stephens, Assange’s solicitor (above left), indicated that the appeal would centre on the fact that Swedish rape trials are heard in part in private, and the argument that this would be a breach of the Australian’s human rights. The chief magistrate Howard Riddle acknowledged in his ruling that such conduct was “alien as far as our system is concerned”.
Should the court of Aappeal rule against him, Assange could ask for permission to appeal to the supreme court on point of law. A last-resort appeal to the European court has not been ruled out, said Stephens.