LONDON - One of Britain's highest courts on Wednesday found that Minnesota's controversial program to commit sex offenders indefinitely to treatment violates European human rights law. The court asked for a guarantee from U.S. officials that an American man living in London wouldn't be subjected to the program if he were extradited.

U.S. justice officials have until June 29 to decide whether to offer an assurance that they wouldn't seek to civilly commit 43-year-old Shawn Eugene Sullivan, who faces charges in Hennepin and Dakota counties for the sexual assault of three girls in the 1990s.

Sullivan's British attorneys argued that he could be locked up with no likelihood of release in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, created to hold and treat dangerous offenders.

On Wednesday, Lord Justice Alan Moses said returning Sullivan for trial with the possibility of later being placed in the sex offender system would be a "flagrant denial of his rights" under European law.

An official with the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the case. A Hennepin County attorney's office spokesman said prosecutors are carefully reviewing the judgment.

The girls involved in the Minnesota cases, now women, were disappointed in the London court's hesitation to extradite him, two of them said Wednesday.

Sullivan is "trying to avoid justice by claiming that the punishment is too harsh," their attorney, Michael Hall III, said. "You won't get much sympathy from me on that kind of argument."

Different view

It isn't unheard of for a foreign government or court to seek an assurance before deciding extradition in criminal cases. European countries and Canada often seek such guarantees before allowing extradition for defendants that would be eligible for the death penalty in the state where they face charges, said University of Minnesota law Prof. David Weissbrodt.

Prosecutors in other states often agree to such deals if they want the defendant to face trial badly enough, Weissbrodt said.

He said the Sullivan case is using the same principle.

"It's showing that the Europeans ... have a different view of human rights than we may have in regard to some issues in the United States," Weissbrodt said.

'Most wanted' list

Minnesota prosecutors have tried for years to find Sullivan and bring him to court. He is charged with groping two 11-year-old relatives at their grandmother's Eagan home in 1993 and raping a 14-year-old girl in his SUV in Bloomington in 1994. Sullivan has denied the allegations.

He left the United States after the cases surfaced and eventually traveled to several European countries. He settled in Ireland, where he married and obtained an Irish passport using a Gaelic spelling of his name.

He was convicted there in 1997 of indecent assaults on two 12-year-old girls.

He was on Interpol's "most wanted" list, and in June 2010, officials arrested him in London. In November 2010, while on remand from prison, he married a woman who works in the United Kingdom's Ministry of Justice. He wears an electronic tag and observes a curfew. He did not appear in court Wednesday.

Although one British official and one lower court judge found that Sullivan should be extradited, Sullivan appealed.

In the written judgment, Moses said it's plainly in the interest of justice that Sullivan should face trial on the Minnesota charges.

"It would be most unfortunate from the point of view of the victims and of justice should [Sullivan] be able to escape trial because of the risk he runs of being the subject of an order for civil commitment," Moses wrote.

Still, he found a "real risk" that Sullivan could be committed to the Sex Offender Program and "that amounts to a risk that he would suffer a flagrant denial of his rights."

In London, Sullivan's lawyer, Ben Brandon, declined to comment on the case until the extradition appeal is decided. Attempts to speak to Sullivan were unsuccessful.

One discharge in a decade

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program, which has 640 people in it according to the latest statistics, has come under fire in recent years. In March, the first patient in more than a decade was provisionally discharged from it.

William Mitchell College of Law Dean Eric Janus, who consulted for Sullivan's attorneys in London, estimated the probability of Sullivan's commitment -- if prosecutors seek it -- at greater than 80 percent, the written judgment said.

U.S. officials told the court that at this stage in Sullivan's case, they could not say whether officials would seek to commit him.

The judgment acknowledged Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Judith Cole's submission that only 13 percent of all Minnesota sex offenders released from prison between 2006 and 2009 were referred to county attorneys, who decide whether to pursue putting offenders in the program. About 3 percent of registered sex offenders in Minnesota are civilly committed, the judgment noted.

Waiting for justice

The three girls who told police nearly 20 years ago that Sullivan sexually assaulted them are now suing Sullivan.

The news from London came as "a slap in the face, kind of," said Jessica Schaefer, who with her cousin Sheena Perry claims Sullivan molested them as children. "I feel like it kind of leaves other predators or criminals to think that they can commit a crime in the United States and hop a border with a plane ticket and not have to answer to any of the allegations."

Hannah Treziok, from the Bloomington case, said she thinks the argument against extradition is "irrational." For nearly two decades, the women have wondered what would become of their cases.

"Over the years, we've had to endure a lot and we've had to buck up and be strong," Treziok said. "Even when we've been cut off at the knees, time and time again, we've continued to crawl. That's what we're going to continue to do. We're not going away."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102