Whenever I’ve raised the complex interactions I see around the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, I find myself mired in defending my position.
If I say I support his work and that I welcome the new world where governments cannot collude in corruption, feminist friends (rightly) point out that rape should be dealt with seriously and argue that this if this guy is guilty as charged, he shouldn’t be nominated for nice human being let alone Australian of the Year.
If I say I’m concerned that the charges are being glossed over and that charming men still need to be called to account for their actions, lefty and anarchist friends (rightly) point out that the accusations are awfully convenient, argue that he’s being “framed” and present me with a list of reasons why the women in question are tainted witnesses. The problem is that both sides have a point. (I’m leaving out the mad right-wingers who want him assassinated because that’s part of the unconscionable rhetoric supporters of Wikileaks want stopped).
Before we go any further, I want to recap a little… and in the spirit of Wikileaks, be transparent myself. Politically, I’m an anarcho-syndicalist, although, like most of us, I’ve grown a little more complacent as I’ve gotten older. I’m also a feminist and a survivor of domestic violence and of many of those border-line encounters where I was pressured in a work-related situation where I ended up consenting to something I wasn’t comfortable with.
One situation was with Yves Tanguy, a reasonably well-known editor in certain circles. I thought I was going for a job interview, for an internship. I was maybe 18 or 19. He was a fair bit older. He was French and charming and had a room filled with books. We drank red wine, which I thought was odd for a job interview, but I didn’t want to appear naïve. We ended up on the rug on the floor, kissing, until I called a halt to it. I explained that I was uncomfortable. He asked me what on earth I’d expected when I’d agreed to come to his house. I left. I didn’t get the internship. I felt dirty and ashamed and I didn’t report anything, even though I felt like I’d been molested. I guess I was lucky he didn’t push things any further. So, if what they say happened did happen to these women, I can empathise and I fully support their right to ask questions and speak up.
I also ought to declare that Julian Assange is not a stranger to me. I don’t know him well, but we’ve had coffee and exchanged a few emails, before Wikileaks started and then around the time it first launched. I have been a journalist dealing with digital culture for many years. So if he is innocent (and even if he’s not) I want to see him treated fairly and with compassion.
I don’t want to reinvent the wheel in this article, so for my political position of Wikileaks, go and read Mark Pesce’s terrific piece for ABC’s The Drum. I’m hopeful about this new world too. I’m anti-war and I believe in a participatory government run by its people not one run by shadowy figures making secret deals that benefit corporations and an out-of-touch élite.
You may also want to brush up on what Julian himself had to say in his article “Don’t Shoot the Messenger”. I have serious concerns they will. Shoot him, that is. There have already been calls from Sarah Palin and an adviser to the Canadian PM for his head on a platter.
But then let’s talk about the actual charges against him, since he’s not being tried for anything he’s published. I’m not a lawyer, but let’s see if we can piece together a timeline. I’m using this article about the supposed deletion of evidence and this article about the charges laid.
If I understand correctly, on August 14, Julian Assange and Anna Ardin have sex. He says it was consensual (and so did she in some early reports… there was talk of a “condom malfunction” that made it sound like it started out okay and then the condom broke… and forgive me for linking to this Daily Mail article that takes a very salacious tone.) The charge relating to this is “unlawful coercion” and although Ardin has also said there was no force used, the charges now say he “used the weight of his body to hold her down in a sexual manner”.
That day she tweets about wanting to find a crayfish party for Julian to attend. The next day, Julian meets the other woman, W, whose name is less widely known than Ardin, because Ardin was the organiser of the conference he was presenting at. They flirt. She calls him but he’s at the crayfish party, where Ardin sends the second deleted text saying she’s hanging out with the coolest people.
On the 16th, Julian apparently goes home with W and at some point has sex with her. From what I can infer, the first time, that evening, it was consensual. The second time, on the morning of the 17th, she claims that it was without a condom “while she was asleep”. (This is where the “sex by surprise” charge comes in.)
I’m not sure what the action is that draws the final charge that Julian “deliberately molested” Ardin on August 18 “in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity”.
Then, on August 19, W calls Ardin and they work out that Julian has slept with both of them. The (alleged) lack of a condom now takes on a much greater significance: not only is there a risk of pregnancy, but this is a man who sleeps around.
I’ve been one of the women in a story like this. It isn’t fun. However, you can’t retrospectively withdraw consent just because you find out that a guy is a dickhead and if you sleep with someone you’ve just met, you don’t exactly have any reason to believe you’re the only person he might be doing that with, unless you’ve fooled yourself into thinking you have a “special connection”.
So, the story goes, they ask him to get an HIV test. He allegedly refuses. They apparently go to the Swedish police on August 20 and ask about a mandatory test and are persuaded to charge him with rape. That charge is dismissed by the judge for lack of evidence. And there it probably would have rested, as it does with so many other sexual assault accusations, if Julian Assange hadn’t been at the heart of changing democracy as we know it. I mean, seriously, when was the last time Interpol got involved with a rape case?
Around then, it gets ridiculous. Ardin supposedly deletes those tweets. The public prosecutor in Gothenburg, an entirely different town, reinstates the charges. Ardin’s blog post about getting revenge surfaces. We’re in standard smear-the-witnesses territory now, at the same time as we’re in serious is-the-CIA-dictating-Sweden’s-moves-or-what?
One of his barristers, James D Catlin, glosses the charges in his article for Crikey when he says, “Apparently having consensual sex in Sweden without a condom is punishable by a term of imprisonment of a minimum of two years for rape.” That’s inflammatory and ridiculous. There is no prison term for consensual sex. Imprisonment would be the result of proving that the sex was, in fact, non-consensual.
And then, of course, last night, Julian turned himself in to the police in London, where he’ll be defended in his extradition hearing by Geoffrey Robertson, which is good. He deserves consular support, to be presumed innocent before proven guilty and a fair trial. I wholeheartedly support this open letter to the Australian government on that issue.
But while it’s very dangerous to imply that he’s an evil man, a rapist and a terrorist without evidence, it’s just as problematic to dismiss these charges as entirely without merit just because they’re incredibly convenient for the governments of the world. In the same way that it’s possible for me to be a feminist and a supporter of Wikileaks and the work that entire team has done, it’s possible, sadly, for Julian to be both a political and technical genius and a complete schmuck who needs to learn to use a condom when he’s asked. It’s not like being a technical whizz-kid and having issues with respect for women is an unheard-of combination… look at Mark Zuckerberg, just for starters…
Now, Julian just needs to survive the right-wing machine long enough to make it to trial, where he’ll either be vindicated or receive a sentence that I hope is commensurate with the alleged crime. As an anarchist, I’m not a big fan of locking people up as a solution to anything much, really.