Julian Assange: Extradition to Sweden just a stop en route to US?

Julian Assange should be extradited to Sweden, a British judge ruled Thursday. His attorneys argued that the US will extradite him from there, putting him at risk of a death sentence.

Matt Dunham / AP
Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange hold placards as they await his arrival at his extradition hearing in London, Feb. 24. The judge ruled that he should be extradited to Sweden, where he faces sexual assault allegations.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be extradited to Sweden to face questioning on sexual assault allegations, a British judge ruled on Thursday. [Editor's note: The original version misrepresented the reason for Assange to be extradited.]

Assange, currently under house arrest in Britain, isn’t in immediate danger of being hustled onto a plane for Stockholm. He’ll appeal the ruling, and that will hold things up for weeks, if not months. But the judge’s decision makes it much more likely that he will end up in Sweden eventually.

If that happens, will it be only a matter of time before Swedish authorities send him on to the US, as his lawyers have argued?

Well, we don’t know. That depends on whether the US Department of Justice decides it can make some a case against Assange for leaking thousands of classified US documents – and whether he is extradited to face those charges. But Thursday’s ruling probably makes no difference as to whether he eventually stands in an American court. He could as easily be sent to the US from Britain as from Sweden. The US has extradition treaties with both countries, after all.

“I’m not sure Sweden would be any more interested in extraditing him than Great Britain would be,” says Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor. “You can’t fault his lawyers for making the argument, though.”

Assange has also claimed that he might end up in the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center, or be subject to the US death penalty. US officials have denied these charges. However, some US politicians – among them Sarah Palin – have called for Assange to be neutralized by the US as if he were himself a terrorist.

Assange has been in the international spotlight for months since his website released documents dealing with the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as US diplomatic efforts around the world.

The sexual assault allegations against him stem from encounters he had with two women in Sweden last year. One deals with an instance in which he allegedly refused to use a condom despite the woman’s wishes. Another involves an incident in which he allegedly initiated sexual contact with a sleeping woman.

Assange has said the charges are politically motivated. His lawyers have said that sending him to Sweden is merely a preliminary to sending him on to the US.

US prosecutors have said they are investigating all options at their disposal in terms of the Assange case. Assange could be prosecuted under the wide-ranging Espionage Act for possessing and disseminating classified information, for instance. Such a prosecution presents difficulties, however, since the US has generally refrained from pursing those who publish such materials. They would presumably have to believe they could justify charging Assange for something the New York Times and other US media arguably also engage in.

The alleged leaker of much of the WikiLeaks material, Army private Bradley Manning, is already in custody. Assange might also be charged with conspiring with Manning to unlawfully obtain and publish the material. Such a prosecution would have to show that Assange induced Manning’s actions in some profound manner, however. That might be difficult to prove, as well.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that federal prosecutors were having difficulty finding evidence that Assange had encouraged Manning. For this and other reasons, former US Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel Jack Goldsmith argues that the US should stop its legal pursuit of the WikiLeaks impresario.

Hauling Assange before a US judge is one thing. Convicting him is quite another, argues Goldsmith, now a Harvard Law professor, in a recent post on the “Lawfare” national security blog and in a Washington Post opinion piece.

“A failed attempt to prosecute Assange would be worse than not prosecuting him. It would make the United States look even more ineffectual than it does as a result of the leaks,” writes Goldsmith.

Assange may already be under indictment in the US. American grand jury proceedings are secret, and a grand jury could have already been empanelled to hear evidence against him.

Conversely, the US may be just as happy to see Assange tied up in Swedish court proceedings. That might occupy him for months without the US having to prosecute him at all.

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