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Divided British Court Upholds Extradition of WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange to Sweden

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Britain’s Supreme Court has upheld the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to Sweden to face questioning over alleged sex crimes. Assange’s lawyers had argued that the Swedish public prosecutor did not have the legal authority to issue the arrest warrant, but the British justices disagreed in a 5-to-2 decision. Assange’s attorneys will have 14 days to file a new appeal. We get reaction from Salon.com blogger and constitutional law attorney Glenn Greenwald. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Britain’s Supreme Court has upheld the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to Sweden to face questioning over alleged sex crimes. Swedish authorities want to question Assange over accusations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. Assange has been under house arrest in Britain since December 2010. Assange’s lawyers had argued that the Swedish public prosecutor did not have the legal authority to issue the arrest warrant. Earlier this morning, the British Supreme Court handed down a split decision. Five judges supported extradition; two judges opposed it. Nicholas Phillips, the president of the Supreme Court, said the decision came down to the definition of “judicial authority” under the terms of the European Extradition Treaty.

NICHOLAS PHILLIPS: The point of law is simply, what do the words “judicial authority” mean? Mr. Assange has argued that they mean a court or judge. Sweden’s request has been issued by a public prosecutor who is not a court or judge, so Mr. Assange has argued that the request is invalid and he doesn’t have to go back to Sweden.

The point of law is simple to state, but it has not been simple to resolve. Indeed, we have only reached our decision by a majority of five to two. There was discussion in Parliament about the words “judicial authority” when the bill which became the Extradition Act was being debated. The bill used the words “judicial authority” because those words were in the Framework Decision, and the act was designed to give effect to the framework decision. It is clear that some members of Parliament believe that the words “judicial authority” in the Framework Decision meant a court or a judge. Indeed, one minister specifically stated to a parliamentary committee that this was the case. But he was mistaken. Judicial authority is the English translation of the French words ”authorité judicial.” The Framework Decision is in both English and French, so it’s necessary to have regard also to what the French phrase means. The French phrase has a wider meaning than the English phrase. In French, the words “judicial authority” can be used of a public prosecutor.

For these reasons, the majority has concluded that the Swedish public prosecutor was a judicial authority within the meaning of both the Framework Decision and the Extradition Act. It follows that the request for Mr. Assange’s extradition has been lawfully made, and his appeal against extradition is accordingly dismissed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Nicholas Phillips, president of the British Supreme Court. Moments later, Dinah Rose, an attorney for Julian Assange, addressed the court.

DINAH ROSE: There is one matter which causes us considerable concern on our initial reading of the decision, and that is that it would appear that a majority of the members of this court have decided the point either principally or solely on the basis of the interpretation of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a point with respect which was not argued during the appeal and which we were given no opportunity to address. Now, obviously, this court will have in mind its recent decision in the case of Lukaszewksi, holding that Article 6 applies to extradition proceedings in the United Kingdom. We are therefore currently considering our position on whether or not it will be necessary, with great regret, to make an application to this court that this matter should be reopened so that we have an opportunity to argue this point.

AMY GOODMAN: In response to the legal concerns raised, the Supreme Court gave Assange a stay of 14 days on the extradition order so that the ruling could be challenged.

To talk more about the case, we’re joined by two guests. Helena Kennedy is joining us from Oxford in England. She’s a British attorney on the legal team representing Julian Assange. She’ll be joining us in a minute. And joining us by Democracy Now! video stream, Glenn Greenwald, blogger for Salon.com, a constitutional lawyer, as well. He has been closely following the WikiLeaks story.

Glenn, can you respond to the decision of the British high court that Julian Assange will be extradited to Sweden?

GLENN GREENWALD: I think it’s difficult to have expected any other outcome. Remember, Julian Assange is one of the people most hated by Western governments because of the transparency that he brought. And typically, unfortunately, judicial branches in the United States and in the United Kingdom do the opposite of what they’re intended to do, which is they protect institutional power and help to punish and deprive the rights of those who are most scorned. And so, I would have been shocked had the court ruled in favor of Assange, even though, as the two dissenting judges on the high court pointed out, the argument of Sweden and those advocating extradition is directly antithetical to what the statute says. No one thinks that a prosecutor is a judicial authority. He hasn’t been charged with a crime, and therefore, there’s no court or judge seeking his extradition. It’s purely a prosecutor. But the law in these cases typically is not what governs. What governs are political considerations and the views of the party. And so, absent some unexpected event, highly unexpected event, at some point in the near future, it’s likely that he will be extradited to Sweden.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And apparently, Glenn, of course, the punishment that he’s likely to face in Sweden, even if he is charged, are much less than—is much less than what he’s likely to face if he’s extradited to the U.S., where the punishment he faces for possible espionage and conspiracy charges will be much greater. Can you say a little about that?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s two issues of concern with being extradited to Sweden. One is that, although we don’t think about Sweden this way, it is nonetheless the case that they have a very oppressive—I would even say borderline barbaric—system of pretrial detention, where when somebody is charged with a crime, they are almost—especially in Assange’s case, where he’s not a Swedish citizen—automatically, more or less, consigned to prison, not released on bail, even though he’s proven over the course of the last two years that his appearances can be secured. And not only would he likely be imprisoned pending trial, but he would be imprisoned under very oppressive conditions, where he could be held incommunicado, denied all contact or communication with the outside world.

The hearings , pretrial hearings in Sweden, are not public. They are entirely private. The media, the public has no idea what takes place within these hearings. And given how sensitive this case is, the idea that judicial decisions in Sweden will be made privately and secretly is very alarming.

But I think the broader concern is the one you just raised, which is there’s clearly in the United States efforts underway not just to investigate but to convene a grand jury, and there are reports, reliable or not, that he’s already been indicted with a sealed indictment. There are certainly efforts by the U.S. government to do so. And the real concern is that Sweden, which in the past has demonstrated subservience to the United States with rendition and other things, will hand him over without much of a fight, and he will face life in prison under espionage statutes for doing nothing more than what newspapers do every day, which is publishing classified information in the public interest.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, going to Sweden? It’s the first time in a very long time that a U.S. Secretary of State is going to Sweden. First, it was announced the high court would be making its decision today, Glenn, and then Sweden tweeted out that Hillary Clinton would be coming there on Sunday.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. I mean, one of the causes for concern is that there’s been a flurry of activity recently with FBI agents harassing people who are alleged to have some communication or contact or association with WikiLeaks. A French citizen and an Icelandic citizen both in the past couple of weeks have been very aggressively accosted by FBI agents on foreign soil. And now you have these what looks to be high-level meetings between, you know, the State Department, the Secretary of State, and Swedish officials. You know, there really is not much of a secret that the Obama administration is busting at the seams to punish Assange. Remember, this is an administration that has—more aggressively than any prior president, has punished people who are government employees who have been whistleblowers, and yet here’s someone who is not a government employee, has no duty to safeguard classified information, and yet it looks very much like the U.S. government is eager to get their hands on Julian Assange.

And that has been the concern all along with going to Sweden. He has never been worried about facing these charges. He feels very confident that he will be ultimately vindicated, that there’s nothing to them. I have no opinion one way or the other on that. He has always been willing to face these accusations. The issue has always been that because he’s not charged, there’s been this extraordinary and unusual effort to get him onto Swedish soil, and the fear has always been that that is just a pretext for turning him over to the United States, something that Britain would have a very hard time doing for a variety of reasons, but that Sweden, as they’ve proven, can be coerced and bullied and pressured into doing fairly easily. And once he’s in the grip of the United States, it’s really hard to imagine how he will ever secure his freedom or liberty again, given what the United States has demonstrated it’s willing to do in terms of flouting conventions of justice and other things when it comes to people accused of harming national security.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Why is that, though, Glenn? Can you explain why would Sweden be more amenable to extradition to the U.S. and not the U.K., which is of course a very close ally of the U.S.?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, for one thing, you know, just a matter of basic international relations. It’s much easier for a country like the United States to pressure and coerce smaller countries than it is larger countries. You know, I think there would be a big outcry— [no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: We seem to—Glenn, you were finishing up saying?

GLENN GREENWALD: And whereas Sweden, you know, is a small country, much more susceptible to that kind of pressure, and again, they’ve been demonstrated in the past to be willing—the U.N. commission found they actually violated international law and prohibitions on oppressive treatment in the way that they allowed CIA agents to basically abduct Egyptian nationals on their soil and render them to Egypt. So I think there’s a real concern, when you add onto that the secrecy behind these pretrial proceedings, that there’s a much higher risk that Sweden will be complicit in turning over Assange to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue with Glenn Greenwald when we come back from break. But first, we’ll go to Helena Kennedy, who’s in Oxford, England, a member of Assange’s legal team. And finally, we are going to be going to Charles Glass to talk about his latest trip to Syria and the latest carnage there. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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Assange Attorney: British Ruling Sets Alarming Precedent for Judicial Independence in Europe

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