WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives for his extradition hearing at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court in London on Thursday.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives for his extradition hearing at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court in London on Thursday. Matt Dunham/AP
Julian Assange lost the first round in his fight against extradition to Sweden to face a sex-crimes inquiry after a London judge dismantled the WikiLeaks founder's claims that he would not face a fair trial there.
Judge Howard Riddle said the allegations of sexual misconduct by two women against Assange meet the definition of extraditable offenses and said the Swedish warrant had been properly issued and was valid.
Assange, 39, a key figure in the release of tens of thousands of secret U.S. government and military documents, has been out on bail during the extradition fight. His lawyers indicated they would appeal the ruling to the High Court, a process that could take months.
"There was no consideration during this entire process as to the merits of the allegations against me," Assange said after the ruling was announced.
Following three days of testimony earlier this month, Riddle concluded Friday that "there is simply no reason to believe there has been a mistake" about the European Arrest Warrant issued by Swedish authorities.
A timeline of events in the case against the WikiLeaks founder:
Warrant Issued, Then Canceled: In August, a Swedish prosecutor issues an arrest warrant for Julian Assange over rape allegations, but it is canceled hours later.
Investigation Reopened: A senior prosecutor reopens the rape investigation in September, citing new information. Assange denies the allegations.
New Warrant Approved: In November, Swedish prosecutors once again issue an arrest warrant to bring Assange in for questioning. Interpol puts Assange on its most-wanted list.
Assange Arrested: After a prearranged handover at a London police station in December, Assange appears before a British judge. He is denied bail and says he intends to fight extradition to Sweden.
Freed On Bail: A week later, Assange is granted bail with conditions: He must stay at a registered address (a British mansion); wear an electronic monitoring tag; report to police daily; and observe a curfew.
Extradition Approved: Assange has seven days to appeal Thursday's ruling that he can be extradited to Sweden to face allegations of sexual misconduct by two women.
— Compiled from staff and wire reports
The final line of his 28-page ruling read: "I must order that Mr. Assange be extradited to Sweden."
Point by point, Riddle ruled against the defense team's case against extradition.
The judge said Assange would get a fair trial in Sweden, despite the country's custom of hearing rape cases behind closed doors. He noted that the alleged crimes of unlawful sex would be serious offenses in the U.K. and said Assange had tried to avoid interrogation before he left Sweden.
Assange's legal team had expressed concern that he could be sent to the U.S. for prosecution and possible execution, but the judge — rejecting claims that the allegations are politically motivated — said this was unlikely and that any such extradition would need to be approved by both Swedish and U.K. authorities.
Riddle also said it was wrong for the defense to raise the question of a possible extradition to the U.S. or the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, given the absence of any evidence that Assange risks torture or execution.
The Swedish case stems from accusations of rape and sexual assault made by two women after Assange visited Sweden last August. Lawyers for Sweden have argued that authorities made repeated attempts to interview the WikiLeaks founder while he was in Scandinavia, to no avail.
Although Assange is wanted only for questioning, Riddle accepted that it is likely he would eventually face charges, the most serious of which carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison.
In Sweden, Claes Borgstrom, the lawyer representing the two women, said the decision had been expected.
"It's just too bad that it took so long," Borgstrom said. "[Assange] will probably appeal this decision for some reason that is hard to understand. He claims that he hasn't committed a crime, so he should just come here and sort it out. I expect that he will be on Swedish soil before the summer."
About a dozen WikiLeaks and Assange supporters in ski hats and parkas gathered outside the court hours before the hearing on a damp morning, hanging banners and signs saying "Free Julian Assange and Bradley Manning," the young U.S. Army private suspected of leaking the documents.
Larry Miller reported from London for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.