WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was granted permission by judges Monday to continue his legal battle to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex crimes allegations — but was warned that his chances of success are slim.
At a hearing at London's High Court, senior judges John Thomas and Duncan Ouseley said Assange would be allowed to apply to Britain's Supreme Court to argue that Europe's process of carrying out extradition was flawed.
The WikiLeaks' chief now has 14 days to submit a written request for a hearing at the country's highest court, Gareth Peirce, a lawyer for Assange, said outside court.
The decision means Assange won't face immediate deportation, and is likely to spend a second Christmas living under curfew at a supporter's country estate in eastern England.
Assange's legal team argue that police and prosecutors — like the Swedish prosecutor seeking to bringAssange back to the country for questioning — are not a proper judicial authority, and shouldn't have the right to order extraditions.
Judges said Assange's lawyers had raised a legal question of "general public importance," which is necessary to win an audience at the Supreme Court. But Thomas added that the appeal's "chances of success may be extraordinarily slim."
Assange, who listened attentively and scribbled notes throughout the hearing, was cheered by a small group of supporters — including several demonstrators from the nearby Occupy London encampment — as he left the court.
"The High Court has decided that an issue that arises from my own case is of general public importance and may be of assistance in other cases and should be heard at the Supreme Court," Assange said on the steps of the courthouse.
"I think this is the right decision and I am thankful. The long struggle for justice for me and for others continues," he said.
Assange, 40, leads the foundering WikiLeaks anti-secrecy movement, which has been hit with a series of legal and financial setbacks. He was accused of rape, coercion and molestation following encounters with two Swedish women in August 2010. Swedish authorities issued a European Arrest Warrant on rape and molestation accusations, and Assange was arrested in London in December 2010.
Assange was released on bail on the condition that he lives under curfew and wears an electronic tag.
In February, Judge Howard Riddle ruled that Assange can be extradited to Sweden to face questions about the allegations, rejecting his claims that he would not receive a fair trial there.
Assange appealed against the decision. He also insists that the sexual encounters were entirely consensual, and legal in the context of English law.
Judges said Monday that they believed Assange would have faced charges if the incidents had taken place in Britain.
Per E. Samuelsson, Assange's Swedish lawyer, hailed the court's decision to allow him to continue his legal fight.
"This is positive news for Julian Assange and means he will remain in the U.K. while the court assesses his appeal," Samuelsson said. "It is something we have fought for."
Claes Borgstrom, the lawyer representing the two women bringing sex crime charges against Assange, called the decision regrettable.
"My clients have waited for over a year for a legal conclusion of this and now they will have to wait even longer," Borgstrom said. "Then it will still end with Assange being transferred to Sweden. The rules are very clear about this."
"I regret he himself doesn't choose to hand himself over," Borgstrom added.
He said the two women had hoped that the case would have been settled at Monday's hearing. "Now they have to wait for another few months. We are hardened by now, but of course this is still stressful," he said.
Peirce said a panel of three Supreme Court judges will review Assange's appeal for a hearing at the court. If accepted, it could be several more months before his fate is decided conclusively. However, if the judges reject the plea for a hearing, Assange could be sent to Sweden within 10 days, she said.
The High Court judges appealed to their colleagues at the Supreme Court to resolve the case as speedily as possible.
"We would, for obvious reasons, ask that the point is decided as quickly as possible," Thomas told the hearing.
Outside the court, masked members of the hacker group Anonymous and supporters of the Occupy protest — some of whom wore the cartoon-style masks that have become synonymous with the demonstration, mingled with WikiLeaks activists.
One banner draped over railings outside the court read "Free Assange. Free Manning," referring to U.S. Army analyst Bradley Manning who is in custody at Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas, suspected of disclosing secret intelligence to WikiLeaks.