The Assange saga may be as good for the jurisprudence of rape as the whole WikiLeaks issue may be for the strength of free speech and the Internet.
Julian Paul Assange's life as a hacker and “rogue journalist” (as he is to some people) had the makings of a classic Hollywood potboiler, initially. Eventually, it appeared to have turned into high drama, with two women alleging rape and molestation, a Swedish prosecutor issuing an arrest warrant and a British court waiting to rule on his extradition on that warrant — all, allegedly caused, according to him, by the tearing of a prophylactic and a conspiracy hatched by people hurt by WikiLeaks.
While multiple versions of the story now exist in the media world, especially on the Internet, it seems to have been established quite early on that Mr. Assange had had consensual sex with the two women. One of them was an activist who let him stay at her place in Stockholm during his visit to the city; the other had attended a talk he gave in the Swedish capital. The first woman, in fact, was reported to have tweeted the night after the alleged molestation that she had been in great company. She is supposed to have later removed the Twitter posting and other evidence online (though leaving traces others have claimed to have found since) after she filed a police complaint.
Theories abound as to what motivated the two women to prefer the police complaints. Their version is that the second woman, who had invited Mr. Assange to her apartment and had slept with him consensually, was concerned over his refusal to wear protection, and called the first woman to ask her to talk to him. When the women found that Mr. Assange was sleeping with both of them, and the first woman sensed that the condom that Mr. Assange wore had not served its purpose during one session, they decided to approach the police to see if they could force him to undergo tests for sexually transmitted diseases. And the police decided that there was a prima facie case against Mr. Assange for rape and molestation — unprotected sex with a sleeping woman apparently comes under the purview of rape laws in Sweden. And a refusal to take “no” from a woman, which the first woman claimed was Mr. Assange's “problem,” is a criminal act.
The first stage ended with the women going to a tabloid newspaper and making a fruitless search for Mr. Assange in Stockholm. Thus, the first strikingly negative image of the “activist hero taking on the big bad world” was established.
The first case, pertaining to alleged rape, was thrown out, with the chief prosecutor saying there was no reason to suspect that Mr. Assange had committed rape. Enter Claes Borgström, noted lawyer and former head of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman, and public prosecutor Marianne Ny. Mr. Borgström has been vocal in calling for amendments to Sweden's rape laws, to widen their scope and ambit. It has been proposed that consensual sex, even between long-term partners, can be construed as rape when there are unequal power relations between them. In effect, a man may be said to have committed rape if a woman is forced to submit owing to underlying power equations.
Compared to India, where domestic violence laws are still being fine-tuned and are not nearly as protective of women (or, in general, of abused individuals) as activists would want them to be, Sweden has more evolved laws. Gender equality is an important concept, and there are different degrees of rape based on whether violence was used or whether the woman's peace, integrity and dignity are offended. Mr. Borgström, according to some analysts, found the Assange case to be a perfect battling ground to test Sweden's rape laws, and teaming up with Ms. Ny, started a new prosecution. This new phase saw extensive media coverage.
In the interim, Mr. Assange's application for permanent resident status and a work permit in Sweden was denied. No reasons were given, but many observers and friends of WikiLeaks found the law being too easily invoked to prevent any discomfort to Sweden's relations with the United States — which were seen to have been significantly hurt by the release of papers related to the U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
The next two stages have been full of action — WikiLeaks started releasing the diplomatic cables through media organisations including The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais.
With the current fluid situation in U.S. politics where President Barack Obama's popularity has been consistently slipping, and he has been forced into too many compromises for his own or his party's liking, the number of presidential hopefuls on the side of the Tea Party have found in “Cablegate” good ammunition to throw up their hands in collective indignation. And the situation being what it is, the moderates have been forced to toe the line of the hardliners, if only to counter absurd calls for the execution of Mr. Assange as a spy and “information terrorist.”
Analysts are not clear what specific statutes have been violated by WikiLeaks itself, but this has not stopped influential members of the administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, from suggesting that stringent action may be taken against Mr. Assange, even if such action involves some facile interpretation of the law. The reaction from certain individuals and ultra-conservatives has been disturbing. One Canadian professor and former adviser to the Canadian Prime Minister has made a call on his blog for Mr. Assange's assassination. That smacks of a “fatwa,” and has been taken note of by the police of that country.
But there is more to the issue than politics. Conspiracy theories of the Central Intelligence Agency using ‘honeypots' to lure Mr. Assange into its trap have been floated. Then there are the simpler theories about Mr. Assange not being able to hold himself back from using his celebrity status with women who are likely to fall for him.
If lives are threatened, they are threatened more by the media's publication of the cables, and nobody in their right minds has accused the media of irresponsibility in that regard yet. Senator Liebermann's calls for an investigation into The New York Times' credentials seem to have been dismissed by commentators as posturing. There is a due process of checking and validation that the media seem to be doing right now, and the talk of lists of installations providing al-Qaeda like organisations a target list seems meaningless, given the public nature of these ‘assets.'
There is some credibility in the claims made in some forums that the publishing of the lists may be like manna to the under-informed or the poorly informed nut-jobs protesting for protest's sake. But intelligent activists know the value of certain assets, and knowledge here has not expanded.
The other issue is the extent to which political control has managed to work smoothly on corporate entities. Amazon, PayPal, MasterCard and Visa, among others, have succumbed. In the case of at least one organisation, governmental and political pressure was applied.
More disturbing than all this is the extent to which many parts of the democratic system seem to have acquiesced in the process of manufacturing consent that has been undertaken by the political system. If Mr. Assange is guilty of espionage, if Bradley Manning is guilty as suspected, in a democracy they have to stand trial and undergo due process. We are not in a state of war, however much war hawks may say we are.
The final act is now under way with Mr. Assange being remanded to custody by a court in the United Kingdom. And there is talk of his extradition to Sweden and possibly the U.S. While there are questions over whether he would get a fair trial, Mr. Assange himself has no choice but to believe in the system. He has invoked the values of the system to commit some of his other acts. He has admitted at various points of time that he is only the messenger and that there is an attempt to shoot the messenger. If WikiLeaks is the genuine product of a new generation which cherishes freedom of speech and leverages the power of the Internet to effect a useful and necessary change in the system as it is now, it will be of only so much concern to Mr. Assange that Mr. Borgtröm and Ms. Ny are prepared to test the limits of the Swedish legal system. It may be as good for the jurisprudence of rape as the whole issue may be for the strength of free speech and the Internet.