A British judge on Thursday ordered that WikiLeaks boss Julian Assange should be extradited to Sweden to face questioning related to charges of sexual abuse. The ruling follows an earlier series of hearings in London in which Assange had sought to undermine the credibility of the Swedish criminal justice system by claiming that the charges against him were politically motivated.
Dismissing Assange's appeals, Judge Howard Riddle at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court told the 39-year-old Australian that he must return to Sweden to face questioning and possible prosecution relating to sexual encounters with two Swedish women last August. Assange denies all allegations of sexual abuse.
Speaking after the decision, Assange again told reporters that he suspected Swedish prosecutors were pursuing him at the behest of the U.S. government. U.S. prosecutors have confirmed that they are exploring possible espionage charges against Assange following the publication of classified U.S. military and diplomatic cables on the WikiLeaks website. But he rejected earlier reports that had him blaming the U.S. for the charges he's facing. "It has been falsely stated that I have said the CIA or Pentagon was behind the initial [sex crimes] allegations," Assange said. "While I never said that, the process and handling of the accusations in Sweden ... is something that deserves serious scrutiny."
During four hearings in December and February, Assange's legal team attempted to portray Swedish prosecutors as disorganized, politically compromised and driven by a feminist bias. But on Thursday, Riddle reserved most of his criticism for Assange and his Swedish legal counsel, saying, "It would be a reasonable assumption that Mr. Assange was deliberately avoiding interrogation before he left Sweden" and that it was thus appropriate for Swedish prosecutors to seek his extradition. Riddle said that Assange's Stockholm-based lawyer, Björn Hurtig, had made a deliberate attempt to mislead the court about Swedish prosecutors' efforts to contact Assange by withholding information about text messages that the prosecutor's office had sent to Assange after the women came forward last summer and labeled Hurtig "an unreliable witness."
The judge also undermined the testimony of defense witness and former Swedish judge Brita Sundberg-Weitman, who accused the Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny, of having an "anti-male bias." Sweden is in the final stages of a three-year action plan designed to encourage Swedish police and prosecutors to more aggressively pursue sex criminals. In his ruling, Riddle dismissed the accusation of feminist bias, saying Sundberg-Weitman's concerns amounted to "very little," as she had never met the prosecutor, and that "her evidence is based upon facts supplied to her by the defense lawyers."
Assange's defense team had also tried to argue that public statements by Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt criticizing Assange had led to a "toxic atmosphere" in Sweden that precluded the possibility of a fair trial. In his judgment, Riddle acknowledged that there had been "considerable adverse publicity against Mr. Assange in Sweden," but added that if there had been any irregularities in the Swedish system, the best place to examine them was in a Swedish trial. Outside the court, Assange's British lawyer, Mark Stephens, told reporters that they would be appealing Thursday's ruling. "We are still hopeful that the matter can be resolved in this country," he said. "We remain optimistic of our chances on appeal."
As the founder of WikiLeaks, Assange promotes absolute transparency, but even he must have blushed over the past few weeks as details of his sex life were revealed in a courthouse packed with the world's media. According to the ruling released by the court, Swedish prosecutors wish to question Assange over four potential sex crimes with two women. The first involves accusations that Assange used violence against a woman by the "forceful spreading of her legs whilst lying on top of her." The second charge relates to claims that Assange "consummated unprotected sexual intercourse without the injured party's knowledge," despite an agreement that a condom be used. The third charge holds that Assange "deliberately molested the injured party ... by lying next to her and pressing his naked, erect penis to her body." And the final charge states that Assange "consummated sexual intercourse" with a woman who "due to sleep, was in a helpless state" which in Sweden amounts to rape.
Assange, who is under house arrest in a mansion in rural England, is writing a book about his work. When he first caught the world's attention last summer with the release of confidential reports from the Afghanistan war, he praised Sweden's open government and strong democracy; the peripatetic Australian, who at the time was living out of a suitcase, named the country as one of his "refuges" where he felt safe from prosecution. Now Assange may be returning to Sweden but this time not on his terms.