Image copyright Reuters Image caption Julian Assange’s lawyer told the Supreme Court earlier in the day that Assange ‘endured one of the longest, most protracted, unwanted extraditions in history’
A British judge who rejected Julian Assange’s bid to avoid extradition to Sweden on allegations of sexual assault last year has been overturned by the country’s highest court.
Assange lost his appeal to the Supreme Court on Thursday.
The 39-year-old Australian-born WikiLeaks founder now faces a lengthy legal process.
He has said he fears that handing himself over to Sweden will ultimately mean extradition to the US to face charges linked to WikiLeaks’ role in publishing thousands of US diplomatic cables.
In 2016, the Swedish authorities charged Assange with two counts of “sexual molestation” and one of “unlawful coercion” over incidents that allegedly took place in 2010, when Assange was still working for WikiLeaks.
Assange denies the allegations.
He arrived at the Supreme Court in London in February after losing two previous High Court trials involving his appeal against extradition.
Back then, his lawyers argued that there was a serious risk that he would be extradited to the US, where prosecutors are looking into whether he can be charged for violating a US espionage law and imprisoned for life.
Assange denies involvement in any espionage.
The row over WikiLeaks documents relating to US officials’ global influence on world affairs, notably the invasion of Iraq in 2003, embarrassed the US.
The case first arose in 2010 when WikiLeaks posted a large number of classified US cables that detailed the US military’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So far, five other similar cases have been brought in Sweden against men who are also Assange’s associates. All have been dismissed or abandoned after journalists won acquittals in court.
In a ruling delivered in June, High Court judge Sir Brian Leveson cited the “profound trauma” that a decision to extradite Assange would have on him.
But he said there was “a real possibility that the United States will obtain Mr Assange’s extradition to face prosecution for substantial offences”.
He rejected Assange’s argument that he would face “an impermissible risk” of being sent to the US if he was handed over to Sweden.
In September, in a separate case, US officials agreed to extradite a WikiLeaks volunteer who was arrested in 2014 and released on bail.
Former state department official Jacob Appelbaum faces charges of espionage and conspiracy in the US for allegedly helping hack into systems belonging to American firms including Microsoft, Google and the FBI.
He has denied the allegations.
“I’m not a spy, I’m not a soldier and I have not conspired to violate US law,” he wrote on his personal website in late September.
This latest case by Assange against the extradition was due to conclude at the Supreme Court in the coming weeks.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Earlier in the day, Assange’s lawyers told the court he had been ‘singled out’ in the US for prosecution
At the High Court last year, Sir Brian cited “myriad tantalising signs” that the US government was “carefully considering” extradition requests against Assange.
Although he remained convinced that there were no circumstances which might justify the risk of extradition, Sir Brian said Assange’s fear that he would be captured and imprisoned “significantly outweighs my assessment of the danger he would face” if he were detained in Sweden.
But the Supreme Court judges have said the Supreme Court case was about extradition, not possible extradition to the US.
They added that “serious issues” had to be resolved, including whether it would be necessary to release anyone held by Sweden while on remand there.
The court also needs to decide whether the US would ask Assange to face trial if he was transferred to the US.
It has left the door open for the case to go back to the Supreme Court, where Assange could try to convince judges he has grounds for another appeal.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Assange spent almost two years holed up inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London
Ahead of the Supreme Court hearing in July, it appeared clear that Assange had no chance of proving extradition would breach his human rights.
Professor Richard Edwards, from the University of Winchester, said the case would be an uphill battle for Assange.
He told the BBC: “The Supreme Court judges are not likely to agree there is any threat of extradition.
“Instead, they will focus on the question of what will happen if they let Assange go.”
Lawyers will now work out how much Assange will have to pay for his own defence.