By PAUL SONNE
LONDON—Britain’s highest court on Wednesday upheld a request from Sweden to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for questioning in a sexual misconduct case, leaving the Australian activist with few legal cards to play in the long-running legal drama.
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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, pictured in London in December 2011.
Mr. Assange normally would now have 14 days to get the European Court of Human Rights to accept an appeal. However, his attorneys said Wednesday he would first pursue an objection over a legal point with the U.K. Supreme Court.
On Wednesday, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Assange, who has been fighting his extradition to Sweden in the British courts ever since he was arrested here in late 2010 on a warrant issued by a Swedish prosecutor.
Swedish authorities want to question Mr. Assange, 40 years old, over allegations that he raped one woman and molested another during a trip to the Scandinavian country in 2010.
He has denied wrongdoing and described the sexual encounters as consensual. His former lawyer, Mark Stephens, at one point called the allegations a “honey trap” sprung to cripple WikiLeaks’ secret-disclosing operation. A lawyer for the two Swedish women, however, has said the allegations have nothing to do with Mr. Assange’s work.
The U.K. Supreme Court is the third British court to rule against the WikiLeaks founder in his quest to avoid extradition. In February 2011, a lower court said that Mr. Assange should be extradited—a decision the country’s High Court upheld on appeal some nine months later.
Mr. Assange’s final legal recourse would normally be to appeal Wednesday’s ruling immediately to the European Court of Human Rights.
The ECHR, based in Strasbourg, France, would have 14 days to decide whether to take Mr. Assange’s case. If the ECHR declines to take the case, British authorities would extradite Mr. Assange. If the ECHR accepts the case, the WikiLeaks founder can remain in Britain under his current bail conditions until proceedings in Strasbourg have concluded, the Crown Prosecution Service said.
To remain in Britain for the proceedings, Mr. Assange technically would have to receive an order from the ECHR or a High Court injunction suspending the Swedish extradition request for the duration of the Strasbourg court case.
The U.K. Supreme Court has indicated that it will issue an order putting Mr. Assange’s extradition on hold temporarily until June 13, while the WikiLeaks founder’s lawyers submit their request to reopen the proceedings, a spokesman for the court said. Separately, it’s unclear whether the clock has started ticking on the 14 days the ECHR has been given by the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether to accept an appeal.
Mr. Assange’s attorney introduced a new wrinkle on Wednesday, however. The U.K. Supreme Court case turned on a relatively obscure legal point: whether a Swedish prosecutor, such as the one who issued the arrest warrant for Mr. Assange, qualified as a proper “judicial authority” to make an extradition request under European law.
Dinah Rose, a lawyer for Mr. Assange, told the court that the WikiLeaks founder may apply to the U.K. Supreme Court “to reopen the matter” because she wasn’t invited to make arguments on the precise aspect of that debate that some justices may have relied upon.
Mr. Assange’s legal team has 14 days to make that application directly to the U.K. Supreme Court. His extradition will be stayed for those 14 days.
Gareth Peirce, another lawyer for Mr. Assange, said there had been no decision yet on an ECHR appeal. “There’s still a new point here [in Britain],” Ms. Peirce said.
Mr. Assange’s team has argued the judicial authority question in the past.
In proceedings this February, Ms. Rose argued that the Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny, didn’t qualify as a proper judicial authority because her office was part of the Swedish executive branch and therefore biased against the defense. Ms. Rose suggested the extradition request should have been issued by an impartial court.
Claire Montgomery, a lawyer representing Sweden, disputed the point, arguing a “judicial authority” doesn’t necessarily need to be impartial to issue a valid extradition request.
Mr. Assange’s legal battle has compounded WikiLeaks’ troubles at a time when the document-leaking website is facing a number of difficulties, including constrained finances.
WikiLeaks has angered Washington by publishing thousands of classified government documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables. Mr. Assange recently began hosting a television show on the Moscow-based English-language TV channel Russia Today, which is funded by the Kremlin.R Soft Web Hosting