Assange case reignites debate on sex crimes


LONDON – Julian Assange’s attempt to avoid being sent from London to Stockholm to face questioning over alleged sex crimes has ignited bitter arguments in Britain over perceptions of rape.

The founder of WikiLeaks has turned his legal travails into a political issue, causing a diplomatic row by taking refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, but a growing number of critics want to focus attention back to the allegations of sexual violence.

“Unless you believe there is a global conspiracy to render Assange to the United States, all of these tactics seem to be just a way of avoiding facing the due process of law,” human rights and civil liberties lawyer Adam Wagner said.

The allegations against Mr Assange were made by two women, then supporters of WikiLeaks, whom he met in Sweden in August 2010.

Mr Assange has not been charged. He is wanted for questioning on suspicion of rape, unlawful coercion and two cases of sexual molestation. If tried and convicted, he faces up to four years in jail. He made no mention of this during a 10-minute speech against what he called a US “witch-hunt” of WikiLeaks, delivered from the balcony of Ecuador’s embassy on Sunday.

But his speech set off a flurry of reactions from media, women’s rights groups and politicians that have shown how little agreement exists on the issue of sexual crime.

George Galloway, a member of parliament from the tiny Respect party, said in a video blog on Monday that Mr Assange was guilty only of “really bad manners”. He based that view on the fact that one of the women said she had consensual sex with Mr Assange using a condom, but later awoke to find him having sex with her again with no condom.

“It might be really sordid and bad sexual etiquette, but whatever else it is, it is not rape or you bankrupt the term rape of all meaning,” said Mr Galloway.

The politician is well known for his provocative stances and it was unclear if he had any significant support for his views, but the comments have caused outrage. “I am appalled that a member of parliament could be so grossly irresponsible as to suggest that sex without consent is anything other than rape,” said Scottish Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson. “As a public figure, rather than obsessing on conspiracy theories, he should be sending a very clear signal to any victim of sexual violence that sex without consent is always rape.”

The fallout from the Galloway blog echoed a controversy raging across the Atlantic over US Republican congressman Todd Akin’s assertion that women had biological defences to prevent pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape”.

In Britain, Mr Galloway was hotter news than Mr Akin, but the comments from women’s groups could apply to both controversies.

“Those who hold positions of power, or who have a public platform, have a responsibility to be informed about the law and not to use their position to promote myths or victim-blaming attitudes about sexual violence,” said a spokeswoman for campaign group End Violence Against Women.

Mr Assange says he had consensual sex with the two women. He has said the timing of the claims, when WikiLeaks was at the height of its activity, was “deeply disturbing”. But a poll of people in Britain found that a large majority thought Ecuador should not protect Mr Assange and that he would get a fair trial in Sweden.

Levels of support for Mr Assange were, however, higher among men than women. The poll, conducted on August 16th and 17th for the Sunday Times, found that 31 per cent of men supported Ecuador’s decision to grant Mr Assange asylum, versus just 18 per cent of women.

Passions were stirred by BBC’s Newsnight on Monday, when former British ambassador Craig Murray named one of the women making allegations against Mr Assange and encouraged viewers to research her background online.

Mr Murray labelled the allegations “dubious” and said they were part of a “political agenda”.

The programme’s presenter rebuked him for naming the alleged victim on live TV. Fellow guest Joan Smith, a columnist at the London Independent, said some left-leaning men were “queuing up to cast aspersions on these women” because they were sympathetic to Mr Assange’s political stance. – (Reuters)