LONDON - A British court agreed on Thursday to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to Sweden where he is wanted for questioning over sex crimes, dismissing claims the move would breach his human rights.
Swedish prosecutors want to question Assange about allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denies, made by two WikiLeaks volunteers during his time in Sweden last August.
"I have specifically considered whether the physical or mental condition of the defendant is such that it would be unjust or oppressive to extradite him," Judge Howard Riddle told London's top-security Belmarsh Magistrates' Court.
"I am satisfied that extradition is compatible with the defendant's (European) Convention rights, I must order Mr. Assange be extradited to Sweden."
Lawyers for Assange, who has angered the U.S. government by releasing thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables on his website, said they would appeal against the decision at London's High Court, putting the extradition on hold.
Mark Stephens, a lawyer for Assange, said the case showed that extraditions under the fast-track European arrest warrant were a form of "tick-box justice."
"We are still hopeful that the matter will be resolved in this country. We still remain very optimistic about our opportunities on appeal," he told reporters outside court.
One of the alleged victims accuses Assange of sexually molesting her by ignoring her request for him to use a condom during sex. The second woman has said Assange had sex with her while she was asleep and that he was not wearing a condom.
Prosecutors say the second allegation falls into the least severe of three categories of rape in Sweden, carrying a maximum of four years in jail.
Assange is a controversial and flamboyant character who inspires strong loyalties among his supporters, but his former right-hand man described him in a recent book as an irresponsible, autocratic bully.
Scores of reporters from around the world have covered the court case and celebrities including British film director Ken Loach and Australian journalist John Pilger offered sureties in December to persuade the British court he would not abscond.
During three days of legal argument earlier this month, lawyers for Assange argued he would not get a fair trial in Sweden and said Swedish prosecutors had mishandled the case against the 39-year-old Australian computer expert.
They argued that he might wind up being sent to the United States where he could face execution for leaking secrets.
Assange's lawyers also accused Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of creating a "toxic atmosphere" in Sweden and damaging his chances of a fair trial by portraying him as "public enemy number one."
However, Judge Riddle dismissed each of the defense's arguments in turn, even describing Assange's Swedish defense lawyer as an "unreliable witness."
The judge said Swedish prosecutors had tried to interview Assange before he left the country but had been unable to do so.
He said the European arrest warrant, under which the fast-track extradition request as made, was valid and the alleged crimes were serious. Publicity surrounding the case was also not a reason to refuse extradition.
"I think it is highly unlikely that any comment has been made with a view to interfere with the course of public justice," Riddle said.
The Swedish prosecution authority had no immediate comment.