On Wednesday, a British court ruled that WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange will be extradited to Sweden to face questioning over accusations of sex crimes made by two women. This case itself is unrelated to WikiLeaks, which is temporarily suspending publishing due to a lack of funds. However, the potential of Assange facing a jail sentence could potentially be the end of WikiLeaks for good.
WikiLeaks of course gained international fame (or infamy?) for publishing confidential American documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is where the extradition to Sweden gets interesting. First Amendment advocacy groups fear that the extradition poses a real threat to freedom of the press should Sweden decide to extradite Assange to the United States for charges unrelated to the charges he is facing in Sweden.
In a prior case, a criminal defendant was extradited from Britain to the United States to face murder charges. The United States, once they had the defendant in their jurisdiction, charged him with additional offenses that are non-extraditable. The Court ordered the United States to return the prisoner to Great Britain once the crime for which he was extradited was adjudicated. It will be interesting to see if this principle will be extended to a situation such as this where a third country will seek the extradition of a prisoner for crimes unrelated to those that allowed his first extradition to bring him in the jurisdiction of the soon to be requested state.
The potential extradition of Julian Assange raises multiple problems. It is likely that if the US decides to commence extradition proceedings, they will wait until Assange is in Swedish custody. The US and Sweden have an extradition treaty that allows for a temporary surrender (loan) of a prisoner because this is faster than the normal extradition process and doesn’t require jumping through the hoops that a normal proceeding would. It is likely that the US would also try to go through Sweden because of the EU treaties concerning onward extradition (meant to prevent this exact situation). The US would have to petition the UK for permission to go after Assange even after he is in Swedish custody. This ends up causing a tangled web where there is no good decision because the US could end up angering the UK if they go around them, Sweden could end up angering the US or the UK depending on which treaty they decide to honor, and the UK could face international backlash if they send Assange back to Sweden knowing that he will end up in US custody.