Espionage! Government misconduct! Political intrigue! International notoriety! Rape, molestation and unlawful coercion – Wait, what?
Julian Assange has gained international notoriety for his role as editor-in-chief for WikiLeaks, a whistleblower website. People are torn on his website’s impact and his work – is he a threat to international security (like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton contends) or a muckraking hero upholding freedom of knowledge by disclosing shocking misconduct?
One aspect of Assange’s fugitive status is relatively cut-and-dry: in September, a Swedish court reopened a sex crimes case against him, and he’s steered clear of Sweden ever since. Alas, it seems that Assange and his lawyer, Mark Stephens, have gone to great lengths to ensure that the rape charges are tried in the court of public opinion rather than a court of law.
Here’s a run-down of the case.
In August, Assange was accused of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion for his actions against two women in Sweden. Basically, both of the women had separate sexual encounters with Assange that started consensually and quickly become nonconsensual. From the New York Times:
“One woman said that Mr. Assange had ignored her appeals to stop after a condom broke. The other woman said that she and Mr. Assange had begun a sexual encounter using a condom, but that Mr. Assange did not comply with her appeals to stop when it was no longer in use.”
Performing a sexual act without the consent of your partner? Yep, that sounds like rape to me. Assange was initially indicted by a Swedish prosecutor, but the higher ranking Chief Prosecutor Eva Finne quickly dismissed the case for insufficient evidence. The woman alleging rape appealed the decision and, a week later, the case was reopened with new evidence. For those of you fortunate enough to have never gone through the legal process for a rape charge, it’s common for a case to be closed and reopened like this.
Swedish prosecutors have been trying to get Assange back to the country for questioning for three months, but he has refused. On November 18th, Sweden issued an international warrant for his arrest because he was wanted for questioning. Assange’s lawyer appealed the arrest; the Svea Court of Appeals in Sweden refused. On November 20th, Interpol issued a Red Notice (essentially an international “wanted person” notice) requesting that its member countries please arrest Assange in order to extradite him to Sweden. Again, this isn’t uncommon – Interpol issued more than 5,000 red notices last year, and they’ve been used for people wanted in connection with alleged sex crimes before. Then on December 1st, Sweden authorized Interpol to make the Red Notice public, Interpol issued a press release, and it’s been media circus ever since.
Assange has called the charges “a dirty trick” and flat-out declared that the case was politically motivated, while his lawyer maintains that the charges are part of “a smear campaign,” adding ominously, “the only question is: Who’s behind it?” In fact, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of the rape charge naysaying in the news has been sourced directly from Assange or his lawyer. After all, those are the two people with the most significant interest in making the charges go away. And if these statements sound familiar, it’s because they are. We hear them every time a high-profile public figure is brought up on rape charges. (Roman Polanski, anyone?)
The trouble with the media coverage on Assange is that no one can seem to separate the man charged with rape, molestation and unlawful coercion from the whimsical image of the internationally coveted spy ducking into dark alleyways and hiding in basements in order to evade capture. Yes, Assange’s life is very exciting, but in comparison, the reality of these rape charges may actually be pretty ordinary.
While Assange has made dogged efforts to contact the media and cast doubt on the legal proceedings , it’s unclear why he’s not participating with prosecution. Meanwhile, it would seem that all the time afforded to make media statements has been well won in the court of public opinion – a venue that’s notoriously hostile toward rape victims. The internet is flooded with bizarre, unhinged conspiracy theories winking knowingly at the “suspicious timing” of Interpol’s red notice issue and, of course, victim-blaming. His sympathizers are crying “false accusation” and whipping revenge theories out of thin air. There’s this gem from Gizmodo, courtesy of AOL News (again, from Assange’s lawyer), in which forcing a sexual act on your partner without their full, enthusiastic consent is not called rape (even though that’s what Sweden’s calling it) but instead “Sex By Surprise.”
A more accurate translation from the Swedish to English for “sex by surprise” is the word “bullshit.” Feministe got it right when Jill wrote:
Withdrawal of consent should be grounds for a rape charge — if you consent to having sex with someone and part of the way through you say to stop and the person you’re having sex with doesn’t stop and continues to have sex with you against your wishes, that’s rape.
People are even speculating that the Pentagon and CIA are behind the charges pending in Sweden. Indeed, it is truly an espionage mastermind who brings a meddlesome public figure up on rape charges in a world that takes the crime of rape soooo seriously. Because there’s such an enormous percentage of accused rapists who spend substantial time in prison. Yes, he will surely be met with swift and decisive ruin. Ruin, I say! Huzzah!
While these conspiracy theories are exciting to read and make great water-cooler talk, few people seem to be entertaining the possibility that, as one of his alleged victims stated,
“The responsibility for what happened to me and the other girl are with a man with a disturbed view of women and problems accepting a no.”
Obviously, no one should assume Julian Assange is guilty of the charges until the Swedish courts find him guilty. But the media coverage surrounding his rape charges has enthusiastically jumped to his side, defending him tooth-and-nail against… well, against whom? Against the Swedish Prosecution Authority? Against the women he allegedly assaulted?
Call me old-fashioned, but isn’t a criminal defense supposed to take place in a court room… instead of on Twitter?
Whether you think the man is a terrorist or a hero, the fact remains that fleeing prosecution is illegal, and breaking the law is wrong, no matter how important you are. If the allegations are false, than it would seem that Assange has nothing to lose by going to trial and clearing his name. And if they aren’t, it is time for justice to be served.