LONDON (Reuters) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who rocked the U.S. government by publishing thousands of secret diplomatic memos, must be extradited to Sweden to face sex crimes allegations, a British judge ruled on Thursday.
Assange’s lawyers said immediately they planned to appeal against the decision to London’s High Court and it could still be months before the legal process in Britain reaches an end.
The 39-year-old Australian computer expert remains in Britain on bail in the meantime.
Swedish prosecutors want to question Assange about allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denies, made by two WikiLeaks volunteers during his time in Sweden last August.
Judge Howard Riddle dismissed Assange’s arguments that he could not get a fair trial in Sweden and said extradition to Sweden would not violate his human rights.
“I must order Mr Assange be extradited to Sweden,” he told London’s top-security Belmarsh Magistrates’ Court in a case covered by scores of reporters from around the world.
Assange, smartly dressed in dark suit and tie, showed no emotion as Riddle gave his verdict.
About a dozen Assange supporters, wearing masks and costumes or Guantanamo Bay-style orange boiler suits, chanted in front of the courthouse.
Speaking to reporters, Assange attacked the fast-track European arrest warrant used to seek his extradition and called the court hearing a “rubber-stamping process.”
“There was no consideration during this entire process as to the merits of the allegations made against me,” he said, accusing the United States of putting pressure on Britain, Sweden and the media over his case.
He gave a thumbs-up sign as he walked away from the court.
Assange’s lawyers have accused Sweden’s Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of creating a “toxic atmosphere” in Sweden and damaging his chances of a fair trial by portraying him as “public enemy number one.”
WikiLeaks caused a media and diplomatic uproar late last year when it began to publish its cache of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, revealing secrets such as that Saudi leaders had urged U.S. military action against Iran.
The U.S. government is examining whether criminal charges can be brought against Assange over the leaks and Assange fears extradition to Sweden could be a stepping-stone to him being taken to the United States, although legal experts say that could not happen without Britain giving permission.
U.S. prosecutors said last week the investigation of Assange and WikiLeaks, was in its preliminary stages.
Joseph diGenova, a Washington attorney and former federal prosecutor, said he does not think the United States has a case against Assange.
“There isn’t a jury in the United States that is going to convict Julian Assange of anything,” diGenova said. “Assange in my opinion qualifies as a journalist. He and WikiLeaks are journalists.”
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the Assange case was a matter between Britain and Sweden. “Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, the U.S. is not involved.”
Swedish prosecutors declined comment.
Assange is a controversial and flamboyant character who inspires strong loyalties among his supporters, but his former right-hand man described him in a recent book as an irresponsible, autocratic bully.
Many well-known people have flocked to Assange’s support, defending him as a crusader for free speech.
One of the alleged victims accuses Assange of sexually molesting her by ignoring her request for him to use a condom during sex. The second woman has said Assange had sex with her while she was asleep and that he was not wearing a condom.
Prosecutors say the second allegation falls into the least severe of three categories of rape in Sweden, carrying a maximum of four years in jail.