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Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

The accusations against Julian Assange


LONDON — The U.S. government is doing all it can to silence the WikiLeaks organization, including starving it of funds by getting PayPal, Visa and MasterCard to freeze its accounts. But has it also persuaded the Swedes to accuse Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, of raping two women, in order to shut him up?

Or more subtly, as some of Assange's supporters allege, is Washington using the rape charges to get Assange extradited from Britain to Sweden, from where it hopes to extradite him to the United States to face espionage charges?

The latter accusation is nonsense, because it would be far easier for the U.S. to extradite Assange from Britain than from Sweden. Under a 2003 U.S.-U.K. agreement, the U.S. no longer has to provide prima facie evidence that an offense has been committed — usually in the form of witness statements — when requesting the extradition of an accused person from Britain.

It would be harder for the U.S. to extradite Assange from Sweden, and in any case the Swedes would have to get British permission to hand him over. Whatever the U.S. government is up to, that is not its strategy. But are the rape accusations in Sweden genuine, or the result of American manipulation or entrapment?

The fact that they were first made after Assange released documents about the war in Afghanistan last summer, and were then revived after he began releasing a quarter-million State Department confidential messages last month, is certainly a striking coincidence, but coincidences really do happen.

It is possible that a man might be a dedicated campaigner for truth and justice (or whatever) by day, and a serial rapist by night. So what are the odds that the accusations that have been made against Assange in Sweden were brought in good faith and without American influence?

There are no actual charges against Assange. The accusations against him were first made last summer, and Assange voluntarily remained in Sweden until the investigation was closed. He claims that the file has now been reopened (by a different prosecutor) for political reasons, and refuses to go back to Sweden for questioning, though he offered to be interviewed at the Swedish embassy in London. So he has been jailed in Britain.

This came as a surprise to him, since people who are resisting extradition normally get bail in Britain. Unless an appeal succeeds, he will be in jail for at least three weeks, and perhaps for months, while his case makes its way through the courts. Yet the allegations against him, even if true, would not normally lead to a rape charge in Britain or most other jurisdictions.

The definition of rape in Sweden is no longer restricted to coercion, but includes any infringement of another person's "sexual integrity." Accusations of rape have consequently increased fourfold in the past 20 years, and Sweden now has the highest per capita rate of reported rapes in Europe. But does anybody really believe that there are more rapists in Sweden than anywhere else?

Swedish courts are clearly unhappy about the politicians' meddling with the law: They are only delivering about as many convictions for rape as they did 20 years ago. If Assange ever faced a Swedish court, he would almost certainly be found not guilty.

According to a Swedish police leak and an interview given by one of the two Swedish women who brought the accusations, Assange was the house guest last August of Anna Ardin, an academic and an official with the Social Democratic Party who had organized various lectures for him around the country. They had consensual sex on the day they met in person, and at some point in the proceedings a condom split.

On the following day, she hosted a party for Assange at her home, and still seemed quite happy about his presence in Sweden. "Sitting outside nearly freezing with the world's coolest people," she tweeted. "It's pretty amazing."

At lunch that same day, however, Assange met another woman, Sofia Wilen. A few days later they traveled to her home in Enkoping, where they too had consensual sex. The following morning, she claims, he had sex with her again while she was still asleep, and this time he did not use a condom. Only after the two women (who did not previously know each other) discovered that he had slept with both of them did they go to the police. However, although a file was opened after the two women's complaints, Sweden's chief prosecutor refused to lay charges against him. He then left Sweden.

So far, no hidden American hand. But another, more junior Swedish prosecutor reopened the file on Assange last month and demanded his extradition for further questioning. The man who asked the prosecutor to do that is Claes Borgstrom, the two women's new lawyer.

Bergstrom denies any U.S. ties, and you can probably believe him: He was gender equality minister in the former Social Democratic-led government until he returned to law in 2008. Neither are Ardin and Wilen likely to lend themselves to a U.S. sting operation. Both women say that they still admire Assange's actions in bringing so many secrets to light.

What we have here, therefore, is a man who assumes too much, and two wronged women, but probably not enough evidence for the law in most countries to treat his actions as rape. Even in Sweden it probably wouldn't, and it's unlikely that Assange would be in jail now if he had just gone back to Sweden and answered more questions. Not that the British judge's decision to imprison him was sensible, or even defensible.

Gwynne Dyer's latest book, "Climate Wars," is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.


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