The personal saga of WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange has been used to overshadow the ground-breaking journalism of WikiLeaks in exposing the secrets of governments and corporations around the world.
Australian diplomatic cables obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald in December revealed, “WikiLeaks is the target of an 'unprecedented' US government criminal investigation”. Despite this, the Australian government continues to argue publicly that it has no knowledge of a US campaign against Assange — the site's editor-in-chief and founder — and even argued it was highly unlikely.
It is unsurprising that the main party incriminated by WikiLeaks' releases — the United States government — is out to make an example of those involved. One of thousands of hacked emails from private spy firm Stratfor released by WikiLeaks in February said the US had a sealed indictment against Assange.
Assange was granted political asylum by Ecuador on August 16 after staying in Ecuador's British embassy since June to avoid extradition to Sweden. He remains in the embassy in a stand-off with British police who have backed down on their threat to raid the embassy.
Assange fears being extradited from Sweden to the US on potential charges of espionage — with the possibility of facing torture and execution. The cruel and unusual treatment of the alleged leaker of the US cables, Bradley Manning — facing 52 years in jail if convicted — is an example of Assange's potential fate.
Swedish authorities want to extradite Assange for questioning over rape allegations. He has not yet been charged with any crime. Swedish authorities have refused Assange's offers to be questioned in Britain. Assange has said he is willing to go to Sweden if there is a guarantee he will not be sent to the US.
Karin Rosander, Director of Communications for the Swedish Prosecution Authority, told BBC Radio 4 on August 21 that the prosecutor had given no reason why Assange could not be questioned in Britain.
Ecuador's decision to grant Assange asylum is based on the fact neither Sweden nor the US could offer any guarantees Assange would not be extradited to the US.
The mainstream media have played their part in poisoning public opinion with a range of attacks on Assange's character, many bordering on the ridiculous. His detractors have labelled him an egotistical “megalomaniac”, a “monstrous narcissist” with bad manners and poor hygiene. The fact that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie did not attend his 40th birthday party was another source of mockery.
Assange's bid for asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy has been treated more like a soap opera than a matter with important implications for journalism and the right of the public to know what their governments do behind closed doors.
However, unlike the gossip about Assange, the rape allegations should not be treated as trivial. Some of Assange's supporters have dismissed the rape allegations as fake or downplayed their seriousness.
One example was British MP George Galloway who said on August 18: “Even taken at its worst, if the allegations made by these two women were true, 100% true, and even if a camera in the room captured them, they don't constitute rape. At least not rape as anyone with any sense can possibly recognise it.”
This kind of statement is deplorable and deeply damaging to the cause of women's rights. The women's rights movement has fought hard to have these matters taken seriously, against a history of cover-ups, victim-blaming and impunity. Trying to excuse such behaviour — no matter who is accused of doing it — plays into this sexism and should be considered unconscionable for progressive people.
The accusations deserve to be taken seriously, but the highly politicised circumstances in which they have been used by the authorities means the possibility of a fair legal process for Assange is unlikely.
The accusations were first made in August 2010, immediately after WikiLeaks released thousands of secret US cables about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which exposed lies and criminal conduct by Western forces. Swedish prosecutors initially dropped the case, until it was reopened after influence from Swedish politicians.
In December 2010, Swedish authorities put out an arrest warrant for Assange — now in Britain — immediately after WikiLeaks began releasing secret cables from US embassies, exposing yet more crimes and lies, this time on a world scale.
Stephanie Convery said at Overland.org.au on August 22: “it is incredibly naive to believe that all the state attention on the Assange case has anything to do with sexual violence”, pointing out that historically “these forces do not care about women and they certainly do not care about victims of sexual assault.”
Convery said the allegations “need not impact on our opposition to extradition, but they too need a political response, for a whole host of reasons. We don’t have the knowledge to pass judgement on the truth of the charges [allegations] but that shouldn’t be an excuse to dismiss the possibility of their legitimacy.”
In an August 23 column in The Guardian titled “We are Women Against Rape and we do not want Julian Assange extradited”, Katrin Axelsson and Lisa Longstaff — members of the British group We are Women Against Rape — wrote: “It seems even clearer now, that the allegations against him are a smokescreen behind which a number of governments are trying to clamp down on WikiLeaks for having audaciously revealed to the public their secret planning of wars and occupations with their attendant rape, murder and destruction.”
Axelsson and Longstaff said: “Justice for an accused rapist does not deny justice for his accusers. But in this case justice is being denied both to accusers and accused.
“The judicial process has been corrupted. On the one hand, the names of the women have been circulated on the internet; they have been trashed, accused of setting a 'honey trap', and seen their allegations dismissed as 'not real rape'. On the other hand, Assange is dealt with by much of the media as if he were guilty, though he has not even been charged.
“It is not for us to decide whether or not the allegations are true and whether what happened amounts to rape or sexual violence — we don't have all the facts and what has been said so far has not been tested. But we do know that rape victims' right to anonymity and defendants' right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty are both crucial to a just judicial process.”
The writers concluded: “Whether or not Assange is guilty of sexual violence, we do not believe that is why he is being pursued. Once again women's fury and frustration at the prevalence of rape and other violence, is being used by politicians to advance their own purposes ...
“That the US has not presented a demand for his extradition at this stage is no guarantee that they won't do so once he is in Sweden, and that he will not be tortured as Bradley Manning and many others, women and men, have. Women Against Rape cannot ignore this threat.”
Axelsson and Longstaff pointed to Britain's gross hypocrisy: “In 1998, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London after an extradition request from Spain. His responsibility for the murder and disappearance of at least 3000 people, and the torture of 30,000 people, including the rape and sexual abuse of more than 3000 women often with the use of dogs, was never in doubt.”
Despite this, “the British government reneged on its obligation to Spain's criminal justice system and Pinochet was allowed to return to Chile. Assange has not even been charged; yet the determination to have him extradited is much greater than ever it was with Pinochet.”
The struggle over Assange is not about the allegations of rape. These are a separate matter from the attacks on WikiLeaks. These have included a financial blockade orchestrated against the site by major financial institutions, the persecution of alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning and the documented evidence that US authorities have drawn-up secret charges with which to pursue Assange.
Using the allegations as a cover for the attacks on WikiLeaks is the exact opposite of treating sexual assault seriously.