Why feminists and the left must defend Julian Assange

January 11, 2011
Rally in support of Wikileaks in front of Sydney Town Hall, 10 December 2010.

When it comes to rape, the left “still doesn’t get it”, so says Katha Pollitt writing recently in the London Guardian on the defence of Wikileaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange, who is currently being held in Britain facing allegations of sex crimes in Sweden.

Pollitt notes the importance of recognising the difference between defending Wikileaks and defending Assange. However, in her sweeping assessment of the left’s approach to rape she neglects to understand the nuanced motivation of feminists and the broader left when it comes to supporting Assange.

Pollitt correctly points out that some commentators, who perceive the case against Assange to be a beat-up, have made inappropriate light of the sexual allegations Assange faces and condemns them for it.

However, Pollitt would do well to note that these sorts of views emerging from some on the left cannot, and should not, be used to argue that the left does not understand the seriousness of rape allegations.

Given his personal profile, and that of his organisation, it would be difficult for Assange to receive a fair trial, be it in Britain, Sweden or anywhere else.

There have been attempts to discredit both sides involved in the case, with details of Assange’s alleged offences disseminated in the media around the world (including the publication of a leaked police report) and numerous theories have emerged about the motives and credibility of the women who filed initial complaints and that of the Swedish prosecutors who have pursued the case.

The key demands in the campaign to support Assange are: that he be presumed innocent until proven otherwise; that he receive a fair and just trial; and included in that, the recognition of the case as being one against allegations of sexual misconduct by Assange and not a case against Wikileaks and its role in publishing leaked documents.

Calls from various high profile political figures and media commentators for the prosecution, or even assassination of Assange because of his involvement in Wikileaks gives perceived legitimacy to the case against Assange in his capacity as Wikileaks editor-in-chief.

US Vice President Jo Biden said on NBC’s Meet the Press in December: “I would argue that it’s closer to being a high-tech terrorist than the Pentagon Papers…”

Conservative columnist Jeffrey T Kuhner wrote in the December 2 Washington Times: “We should treat Mr Assange the same way as other high-value terrorist targets.”

In late November, American Republican politician Sarah Palin updated her Facebook page with: “Assange is not a ‘journalist’, any more than the ‘editor’ of al-Qa’ida’s new English-language magazine Inspire is a ‘journalist … Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qa’ida and Taliban leaders?”

Also, there is a danger in the lines becoming blurred between a case against Assange in a personal versus professional capacity as media outlets continue to publish stories that blend together the concerns around freedom of information and the sexual misconduct case against Assange.

For these reasons it is important that the left continues to defend Assange’s professional credibility and support his right to a fair trial on the basis of the facts of the case lodged against him.

There are of course those who have questioned the legitimacy of the sexual misconduct case against Assange.

Even Pollitt concedes: “Given that US politicians, from Joe Biden to Sarah Palin, have called for Assange’s head, it isn’t paranoid to suspect that he is being singled out in order to extradite him to the United States.”

Indeed, if facts emerge that prove the accusations Assange now faces are merely a front to buy-time in order to build a case to extradite Assange to the US under the Espionage Act (or under any other law, for any reasons relating to his business with Wikileaks), it would be important to then defend Assange on this basis and condemn the trivialisation of any variation of sexual misconduct.

Speaking at a Sydney rally in support of Wikileaks on December 14, feminist activist Kiraz Janicke said: “I’m not going to comment on the rights and wrongs of the case against Assange, because the fact is we don’t know. This rally is about the right to a fair trial, free from outside influence and political agendas.

“This rally is about the right to free speech, freedom of information and freedom from persecution. As women we should never, never let them use our struggle against sexual assault, for their struggle against free speech.”

In a December 9 letter the Guardian, Katrin Axelsson noted similarly: “There is a long tradition of the use of rape and sexual assault for political agendas that have nothing to do with women’s safety. In the south of the US, the lynching of black men was often justified on grounds that they had raped or even looked at a white woman.

“Women don’t take kindly to our demand for safety being misused, while rape continues to be neglected at best or protected at worst.”

It is important that the left continues to defend Assange’s right to a fair trial. It is not up to the media, politicians, or water-cooler conversations to condemn Assange or decide his fate, or that of Wikileaks.

As Glenn Greenwald told CNN on December 27: “People should go to jail when they are charged with a crime, and they are convicted of that crime, in a court of law …

Some facts are certain: Assange remained in Sweden for more than a month after the initial allegations were made. He complied fully with police questioning at the time. The December 24 Sydney Morning Herald said the current arrest warrant was issued “in relation to questions the prosecutors’ office wishes him to answer regarding the accusations”

At no time has Assange been charged with any crime and neither he or his lawyers have received evidence from Sweden of the crimes he is accused of having committed.

Assange will next appear in court on February 7 and 8 for his extradition hearing.

It is up to us to ensure the process involved in prosecuting any charges brought against Assange in this case be fair and just, and that a sexual misconduct case does not instead become a case to stifle freedom of information or publishing rights.

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