Britain’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange should be deported to Sweden to face questioning on sex-crime allegations, but Mr. Assange’s lawyer then won a surprise 14-day reprieve that has sent the legal fight into uncharted territory.
Assange shot to international notoriety in 2010 when his website published hundreds of thousands of classified US documents, including sensitive diplomatic cables. As he rose in prominence that year, two Swedish women alleged he sexually molested them. Swedish authorities want to question Assange, who maintains the sex was consensual and alleges the allegations are politically motivated.
In a 5-2 decision, the British court dealt a blow to Assange’s nearly two-year legal effort to stave off extradition to Sweden. But after the verdict was delivered, Assange’s lawyer Dinah Rose asked for two weeks to review the decision, arguing that it hinged on a legal point not addressed by either side in a February court hearing.
The court granted the unusual request, giving Assange’s team the chance to apply to reopen the case. Such a turn of events has only occurred once before at the top of the British court system, and for different reasons, meaning the effort to move Assange to Sweden just got more uncertain and protracted.
Uncharted legal waters
“We’ve never been here before. In a sense we are all guessing,” says Carl Gardner, a British legal expert in London who blogs at HeadofLegal.com. “It could be that this is shut down relatively quickly… [but] there’s potential for this to spiral.”
Assange’s team is now expected to file an application within two weeks to reopen the case. What the court would do with the application is uncertain.
Today’s ruling indicated that at least three judges viewed as decisive a legal point from the 1969 Vienna convention on the law of treaties – a point the lawyers did not have a chance to debate in an earlier hearing, writes legal analyst Joshua Rozenberg in the Guardian. “[G]iven two weeks to prepare her case, Rose could well come up with other arguments. In the meantime, Assange can stay in the UK,” writes Mr. Rozenberg, summing up that “he lives to fight another day.”
The quickest resolution, says Mr. Gardner, would be for the Supreme Court to reopen the case, hear the arguments on the Vienna convention, and then decide it made no difference. “That would probably take a few weeks.”
Extradition still likely
In that case, Assange still has two other appeal options, neither of which are likely to halt his extradition to Sweden, says Gardner.
In Sweden, Assange could face prosecution and eventual imprisonment. His supporters have expressed concern that the US would try to extradite him from Sweden.
“WikiLeaks is under serious threat,” read a statement from WikiLeaks. “The US, UK, Swedish and Australian governments are engaging in a coordinated effort to extradite its editor in chief Julian Assange to the United States, to face espionage charges for journalistic activities.”
The US government has not publicly tipped its hand about any plans to request Assange’s extradition from England or Sweden. But a diplomatic cable from Australia’s embassy in Washington obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald reportedly said that “a broad range of possible charges are under consideration, including espionage and conspiracy.”
A confidential email obtained by WikiLeaks from the Texas-based intelligence firm Stratfor indicated that the US has a sealed indictment on Assange.
But Gardner sees no advantage in the US waiting for Assange to reach Sweden before trying to extradite him. He notes that under the European arrest warrant system, if Britain hands over Assange to Sweden he cannot then be moved elsewhere without British consent.
“Actually sending him to Sweden creates an extra block on sending him to America that doesn’t exist here [in England],” says Gardner.