- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 30, 2012

LONDON (AP) — Britain’s Supreme Court on Wednesday endorsed the extradition of WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange to Sweden, bringing the secret-spilling Internet activist a big step closer to prosecution in a Scandinavian court.

But a question mark hung over the decision after Mr. Assange’s lawyer made the highly unusual suggestion that she would try to reopen the case, raising the prospect of more legal wrangling.

Mr. Assange, 40, has spent the better part of two years fighting attempts to send him to Sweden, where he is wanted on sex-crime allegations. He has yet to be charged.

The U.K. side of that struggle came to an uncertain end Wednesday, with the nation's highest court ruling 5-2 that the warrant seeking his arrest was properly issued — and Mr. Assange‘s lawyer saying she might contest the ruling.

Supreme Court President Nicholas Phillips, reading out the verdict, acknowledged that coming to a conclusion in the high-profile case had “not been simple.”

But he said the court ultimately had concluded that “the request for Mr. Assange’s extradition has been lawfully made and his appeal against extradition is accordingly dismissed.”

Assange lawyer Dinah Rose stood up after the verdict to complain that the court’s ruling largely relied on a treaty whose interpretation she says she never had the chance to challenge, requesting time to study the judgment with an eye toward trying to reopen the case.

Such a maneuver is practically unheard of, according to lawyer Karen Todner, whose law firm handles many high-profile extradition cases.

“It’s very unusual,” she told the Associated Press. “I’ve never known them to reopen a case.”

President Phillips gave Ms. Rose two weeks to make her move, meaning an extradition wouldn’t happen until the second half of June at the earliest.

It could be much later. Even if the Supreme Court refuses to revisit its judgment, Mr. Assange could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, although Ms. Todner said he was unlikely to make much headway there unless he could argue that his physical safety or psychological well-being would be at risk in Sweden.

Mr. Assange, a former computer hacker from Australia, shot to international prominence in 2010 with the release of hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents, including a hard-to-watch video that showed U.S. forces gunning down a crowd of Iraqi civilians and journalists that they had mistaken for insurgents.

His release of a quarter-million classified U.S. State Department cables in the final months of that year outraged Washington and destabilized American diplomacy worldwide.

But his work exposing government secrets increasingly came under a cloud after two Swedish women accused him of molestation and rape following a visit to the country in mid-2010. Mr. Assange denies wrongdoing, saying the sex was consensual, but he has refused to go to Sweden, claiming he won’t get a fair trial there.

He and his supporters also have hinted that the sex allegations are a cover for a planned move to extradite him to the United States, where he claims he has been indicted secretly for the WikiLeaks disclosures.

Those allegations, paired with the ponderous progress of Mr Assange’s appeals, have caused irritation in Sweden.

Claes Borgstrom, the lawyer who represents the two Swedish women who accuse Mr. Assange of sex crimes, expressed relief at the U.K. Supreme Court’s decision, but he said the British judicial system should have dealt with the case more quickly.

“Now, finally, we have a decision,” Mr. Borgstrom told AP, saying the long wait had been stressful for his clients. He dismissed suggestions that the underlying motive behind the extradition was to hand Mr. Assange over to the United States.

“He is not at a greater risk of being handed over from Sweden than from Britain,” Mr. Borgstrom said.

Australia’s government said in a statement released after the verdict that it would “closely monitor” any proceedings against Mr. Assange in Sweden.

Unusually, Mr. Assange did not appear in court Wednesday; he reportedly was stuck in traffic. Attempts to reach him for comment weren’t immediately successful.

Associated Press writers Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Rod McGuirk in Sydney, Australia, contributed to this report.