With Julian Assange remaining in diplomatic limbo in London, Sweden refuses his offer for an interview, leading some to suspect they are not anxious to pursue allegations of rape that have been lodged against him.
About 50 people protesting Julian Assange's January 23 video appearance at Oxford Union debate hall made clear that the months the founder of the government transparency web site WikiLeaks has spent confined to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London have not dulled the public memory of sex crime accusations against him.
The protest organizer told The Guardian she opposed what she says is the "marginalization" of the claims of two women who say Assange sexually assaulted them in Sweden in 2010.
Assange was arrested in London in December 2010 under the authority of the European Arrest Warrant, a legal instrument promoted as a counterterrorism tool that allows any EU country to detain suspects wanted in another member country, including for acts not classified as crimes under the detaining country's laws. The arrest warrant says he is suspected of rape, sexual molestation and illegal use of force. Assange has invited Sweden to interview him by remote communication or in person at the embassy. Sweden has so far not expressed interest in doing so. Formal charges have not been filed in Sweden, where suspects must undergo two rounds of questioning before that stage of the legal process.
Assange and his attorneys in the United States and Europe could not be reached for comment for this article.
In an October 2012 letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder, they asked the Department of Justice to give its word that Assange will not be extradited, subject to indefinite detention or prosecution under the Espionage Act for the activities of WikiLeaks, but with no response, he and his Swedish accusers remain in legal limbo, calling into question whether Assange's civil liberties and the women's right to take their accusations through the criminal justice process can both be upheld.
Government Tactic of Smearing Whistleblowers
Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project represented high-profile whistleblowers Thomas Drake, who outed an illegal surveillance program at the National Security Agency, and former CIA official John Kiriakou, who shared information about torture with the press.
"If Sweden really gave a damn about [the accusations], they would take up Mr. Assange on his offers to be interviewed," said Radack.
Radack said she worked in a battered women's clinic during law school and still volunteers at rape crisis centers. "I know rape victims are held to almost impossible standards," to establish their credibility, she said. For the two Swedish women, "Their own state delegitimizes their claims by not aggressively pursuing them."
The accusations against the leader whose organization released millions of official secrets to the embarrassment of governments around the world have raised more than a few eyebrows.
"Certainly sex charges and sex has been an issue that has been used to undermine the credibility" of other whistleblowers, said Radack.
The tactic has been used to discredit not only whistleblowers but also their supporters. According to Radack, "In every single high-profile case I've had," including Kiriakou's and Drake's, "I've been accused of sleeping with my clients."
Politicizing Gender-Based Crime
While it remains unknown whether such a strategy plays a role in Assange's case, widespread suspicions have been enough to raise concerns about using accusations of rape, a crime that disproportionately affects women, as a smear tactic against whistleblowers.
"It really speaks to how little respect and value is placed on women and women's lives," said Claudia Garcia-Rojas, a journalist who spent three years at the Chicago Task Force on Violence Against Girls and Young Women.
Much of the argument for Assange hinges on his attorneys' claim that the acts described in the allegations against him by the women are not criminal under UK law. While the truth of that assertion remains unclear, rape laws do vary widely in countries throughout Europe. Why?
According to Garcia-Rojas, "It's a combination of history and culture and also, [political] representation." Women make up less than 25 percent of the members of both Houses of the UK Parliament. Sweden's Parliament has more women than almost other lawmaking body in the world, about 48 percent women as of 2008. A BBC comparison of rape laws in the two countries, along with Germany, Scotland and the US, showed more similarities than differences, though it did not include data about enforcement. Sweden outlawed spousal rape decades before the UK, but the maximum prison sentence is much shorter.
Just as WikiLeaks' political struggles have given the world a glimpse at governments' stances on free speech, the rape accusations against Assange have shined light on some left-leaning leaders and their attitudes about rape - and the result hasn't always been flattering.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa was skeptical of the womens' claims, naming among his reasons that Assange was sleeping in the same bed with one of his accusers. Filmmaker Michael Moore, who posted part of Assange's bail after his initial arrest, told former MSNBC TV host Keith Olbermann the accusations were "a whole bunch of hooey." British Member of Parliament George Galloway, in an August 2012 podcast, said: "I mean, not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion. Some people believe that when you go to bed with somebody, take off your clothes and have sex with them and then fall asleep, you're already in the sex game with them." He implied that Assange's alleged conduct was simply "bad manners" and that to equate the accusations with rape would be to "bankrupt the term rape of all meaning."
Women who accuse less well-known men of rape often face similar derision, but another factor comes into play in Assange's case. "The left has sort of adopted Assange as its progressive hero," said Garcia-Rojas. For that reason, "They don't really want to look at this alleged accusation with a lot of seriousness."
At at least a few Occupy camps - offline centers of left and radical activism that in some ways grew up alongside WikiLeaks - some women were discouraged from reporting rapes, with justifications ranging from distrust of law enforcement to shielding the movement from negative press. "Just because the men in the quote-unquote, like, 'the movement,' are involved in social justice work, this doesn't mean that they can't participate in the patriarchy, in some of the more horrid crimes," said Garcia-Rojas.
Shedding Light on a Shadowy Subculture
Assange is often referred to as a "hacker" or "blogger" while First Amendment lawyers, among others, equate his work on WikiLeaks' with journalism. The split suggests cyberactivism is not only controversial, but also not yet well understood. Gabriella Coleman, a communications professor at work on a book about the hacktivist collective Anonymous, says the accusations against Assange and the often sexist criticism of his accusers are not strong indicators of hacktivist culture.
"It is a very, very male world," said Coleman, but "it doesn't tend to be a culture like football where you're talking about the ladies and scoring with them and that kind of thing." Closed subcultures where men are given particular admiration or authority, such as certain sports cultures, have been documented to create more risk and impunity for rape and other sex crimes.
Questioning norms is fundamental to the subversive act of hacking, said Coleman, and "There is non-normative treatment of sexuality within the hacker world, whether it is a lot of transgender folks; queer communities; polyamory is extremely common." But in her experience attending something like 40 to 50 hacker conferences and researching two books, she said she doesn't think hackers' culture of rule-breaking extends to sexual violence. "They're really into consent and transparency," said Coleman. "Polyamory is a really good example. It's a culture of, 'Let's talk about everything and make sure we're all on the same page when it comes to having multiple relationships.' "
That's not to say hacker gatherings like Defcon in Las Vegas are immune to instances of "ubersexualization of women," said Coleman, but increasingly, they are loudly condemned. She said skepticism among cyberactivists regarding the sex crimes accusations against Assange tends to be centered on the claims' potentially political nature. Coleman speculated that suspicion may have grown even stronger after September 2012, when file-sharing site Pirate Bay founder Gottfrid Svartholm Warg was deported from Cambodia to Sweden to serve a 2009 sentence for copyright infringement. According to Asia Times, Warg allegedly helped host WikiLeaks' web site for a time.