Assange to be extradited to Sweden: UK judge

WikiLeaks` Julian Assange has been implicated with the charges of sexual assault on Swedish women.

Updated: Feb 24, 2011, 21:37 PM IST

London: Julian Assange can be extradited to Sweden in a sex crimes inquiry, a British judge ruled Thursday, rejecting claims by the WikiLeaks founder that he would not face a fair trial there. Assange`s lawyer said he would appeal.

Judge Howard Riddle said the allegations of rape and sexual molestation 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 US government and military documents, has been out on bail during the extradition fight. He has seven days to appeal the ruling in British courts.

After hearing three days of testimony this month, Riddle concluded "there is simply no reason to believe there has been a mistake" about the European Arrest Warrant issued by Swedish authorities.

In his ruling, the judge dismantled the defense case against extradition point by point. He rejected the claim that comments made against Assange by Swedish prosecutors and politicians would pervert the course of justice.

Assange`s lawyers also said that Sweden`s custom of hearing rape cases behind closed doors meant he would not get a fair trial, but Riddle said the practice was common in Sweden.

Assange`s lawyers have questioned Sweden`s judicial process and expressed concern their client risks being handed over to the United States, which is investigating whether Assange and WikiLeaks have violated US laws by distributing secret government documents.

WikiLeaks has released tens of thousands of US military documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and on US diplomatic efforts worldwide, deeply angering US officials.

The judge said it was wrong for the defense to raise the question of a possible extradition to the US or the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, given the absence of any evidence that Assange risks torture or execution.

The Swedish case stems from charges of sexual misconduct made against Assange by two women after he visited Sweden last August. Lawyers for Sweden have argued that authorities made repeated attempts to interview Assange while he was in Scandinavia, to no avail.

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."

Bjorn Hurtig, Assange`s Swedish lawyer, told The Associated Press that he was already preparing to represent his client.

"If he comes to Sweden I think he has great chances of being freed," Hurtig said. "And I`ll be waiting for him, ready to fight for him tooth and nail."

The hearing Thursday attracted Assange`s usual coterie of high-profile supporters, including Bianca Jagger and Jemima Goldsmith.

About a dozen WikiLeaks and Assange supporters in ski hats and parkas gathered outside the court hours before the hearing, hanging banners and signs saying "Free Julian Assange and Bradley Manning," the US Army private suspected of leaking the documents to WikiLeaks.

Vaughan Smith, the founder of the Frontline Club who has been hosting Assange at his country estate, said the ruling was "disappointing."

Smith said Assange remains welcome at his house.

"He`s good company," Smith said.

Bureau Report

Suicide bomber in western Iraq kills 8
Baghdad: A government official in western Iraq says a suicide bomber trying to assassinate the deputy head of the provincial council in Anbar province has killed eight people.

The Chairman of the Anbar Provincial Council, Jasim al-Halbusi, said a man wearing an explosives vest blew himself up Thursday near the government official when he was outside of a sports stadium in Ramadi.

The deputy was not hurt but seven policemen and a bodyguard were killed in the attack.

Iraq`s prime minister had warned his people to boycott a planned anti-government protest scheduled for Friday, saying it was being organized by supporters of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave no proof for his assertion in a nationally televised speech Thursday, which echoed similar statements he`s made blaming terrorists and Saddam loyalists for an array of problems in the country.

His comments were the strongest to date on demonstrations slated to take place across Iraq that have been described as a "Day of Rage" on Facebook and in Internet postings calling for people to take part in the event.

Al-Maliki`s warning was another sign of the worry Iraqi officials feel that the uprisings demanding regime change in many parts of the Middle East will buffet Iraq as well.

So far, Iraqis have held some small-scale protests around the country — occasionally punctuated by violent clashes between security and demonstrators — demanding better public services, more assistance for widows and orphans and greater protection for human rights. But unlike protests in the wider Middle East, they have generally not called for a complete change in government. Iraq is one of the few countries in the region where officials are democratically elected.

"I call on you to be cautious and careful and stay away from this (event)," al-Maliki said of Friday`s march.

He said that he did not want to deprive Iraqis of their right to protest legitimate demands, but wanted it to happen with someone other than "Saddamists, terrorists and al-Qaida" standing behind the march.

"Frankly speaking, they are planing to take advantage of tomorrow`s demonstration for their own benefit," he said.

Earlier Thursday, the Iraqi reporter who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush was forcibly detained by the Iraqi Army after making what is believed to be his first public visit to his homeland after being freed from prison.

One of Muntadhar al-Zeidi`s brothers told The Associated Press that the reporter returned to Iraq to take part in Friday`s rally.

Al-Zeidi became a celebrity in the Arab world after throwing his shoes at Bush during a news conference and calling him a dog. Released from an Iraqi prison after serving a criminal sentence, he eventually left the country in 2009 and has not appeared publicly in Iraq since then.

Witnesses saw al-Zeidi leaving a mosque in a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad and then visiting a nearby cemetery. After leaving the cemetery, he was confronted by an Iraqi Army commander backed up by Iraqi Army soldiers who said al-Zeidi should come with them for questioning.

An Associated Press photographer on the scene said the former journalist asked whether he was under arrest and the commander said he was not. A brief discussion ensued, during which al-Zeidi said he did not want to go with the military personnel.

Eventually al-Zeidi was forcibly led away by Iraqi Army soldiers who gripped his arms on either side and escorted him to a waiting Humvee. Iraqi military personnel holding rifles prevented a crowd of photographers from shooting photos of the altercation.

Bureau Report