Assange wins new round in Britain extradition fight

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange won permission Monday to apply to Britain's highest court in a final attempt to block his extradition to Sweden over rape allegations after a year-long battle.

Two High Court judges threw Assange a fresh legal lifeline when they ruled that the case raised a question "of general public importance" which should be decided by the Supreme Court "as quickly as possible".

Although the judges refused the 40-year-old Australian permission to appeal to the Supreme Court, they ruled that his lawyers could write directly to the higher court asking them to take on the case.

Addressing a media scrum outside the High Court in London, the platinum-haired Assange said the judges had made the "correct" decision.

"Today the High Court has decided that the issues arising from my own case are of general public importance and may be of assistance to other cases and should be heard by the Supreme Court," he said.

"I think that is a correct decision and I am thankful. The long struggle for justice for me and others continues."

The issue of public interest centres on whether a public prosecutor has the right to sign the European arrest warrant under which Assange was detained in December last year.

Assange, whose whistleblowing website has infuriated Washington by releasing hundreds of thousands of classified US documents, pointed out that British lawmakers were set to debate the country's extradition laws later Monday.

His lawyer Gareth Peirce -- who is known for her work on high-profile rights cases including people falsely accused of Irish republican attacks -- said his legal team had 14 days to submit a written petition to the Supreme Court.

But there is no guarantee it will actually agree to hear the case and she confirmed that if it refuses, Assange will have exhausted all legal avenues in Britain.

"The Supreme Court receives it and considers it on paper, three judges from the Supreme Court consider it and whether to grant leave to the case," Peirce told reporters.

"If they refuse leave, it is the end of it."

Assange is now set to spend a second Christmas at the country mansion of a supporter in eastern England where he has been living under stringent bail conditions.

Two women in Sweden have alleged that Assange raped one of them and sexually molested another after he held a seminar in Stockholm in August last year.

His accusers' lawyer said the British court decision was "regrettable".

"If this doesn't end with his extradition, you can just toss out the whole European arrest warrant system, since it then would be useless," Claes Borgstroem told Sweden's TT news agency.

Assange strongly denies any wrongdoing and says the sex was consensual.

He believes the allegations are politically motivated and linked to WikiLeaks' release of hundreds of thousands of classified US files about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Later releases of cables from US embassies across the world also embarrassed the US administration with their often frank appraisals of world leaders.

A lower court initially approved Assange's extradition in February. He appealed to the High Court which rejected his challenge on November 2.

Support for the WikiLeaks chief has dwindled amid a slew of controversies, including a spectacular falling-out with the organisation's former media partners, the New York Times and Guardian newspapers.

Former WikiLeaks colleagues have turned on him, attacking the way he ran the site.

However, he retains many supporters and this month WikiLeaks was awarded a top Australian journalism prize, the Walkley Awards, for its work in releasing the cables.

The suspected source of the files, US soldier Bradley Manning, was arrested and has spent the last year and a half in a military prison. He is due to appear before a US military tribunal on December 16.

WikiLeaks was forced to suspend releasing files in October after a funding blockade but resumed publication last week with the launch of a project on the global surveillance industry.

© 2011 AFP

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