With a leap Assange was free … not. The founder of WikiLeaks, who has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London on political asylum from UK extradition to Sweden, has passed an important milestone. Three of the four sex-crime accusations against him have lapsed due to a five-year statute of limitations. The Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny has issued a statement saying that the prosecution on these counts has been discontinued, which makes it sound like an active decision (and thus has it been reported round the world), when in fact the prosecution has simply ceased to exist, the clock having run out.
Assange came to police attention in August 2010, after going to Sweden to deliver a lecture to a leftist Christian group within the Social Democratic party. A week after his arrival, two women with whom he had had sexual encounters made inquiries with the police as to whether he could be compelled to take an STI test, based on his reluctance to wear a condom.
A duty prosecutor opened a case for “third-degree rape” and “harassment” (ofredande) based on these interviews, but the rape accusation was thrown out by a senior prosecutor 24 hours later, who said that Assange had no case to answer. The two women, now complainants, then acquired as a lawyer Claes Borgstrom, a former gender equality minister, to appeal the decision not to prosecute.
The rape prosecution was reinstated for complainant B, Sofia Wilen, Another accusation — sexual coercion — was added by complainant A, Anna Ardin. Assange stayed in Sweden for several weeks and was interviewed once by police, with no follow-up from authorities, before he returned to the UK to launch the massive Cablegate archive with The Guardian and The New York Times. At that point, Sweden began to seek his extradition.
With a bevy of lawyers including Geoffrey Robertson, Assange fought extradition for months, arguing that Sweden could — and did in other cases — interview accused persons out-of-country, and pointing out that Sweden’s system of compulsory remand for felony accusations would leave him open to extradition to the US on espionage charges. In June 2012, when all appeals failed, he walked into the Ecuador embassy and was given asylum by the leftist Correa government.
Over the months and years, the lurid details of the case became visible, showing either a full-court press to have Assange in an orange jumpsuit, or a shambles, or both. The complainant of “minor rape”, Sofia Wilen, was a student who had crashed Assange’s insiders-only lecture. The accusation of rape hinged on a passage in her police record in which she said that Assange had initiated unprotected sex with her while she was still asleep, which she consented to some seconds after initiation — this taking place the morning after consensual sex the previous night.
Ardin had had sex with Assange the night of his arrival in Sweden, as she had lent him her apartment, and then come back early from political campaigning out of town. Her initial accusation was that Assange had made two unwanted sexual advances to her in the days following, after she had made it clear that she no longer wanted to have sex with him but that he was welcome to continue to share her studio apartment and bed. The third accusation — of minor sexual assault — was added only after Wilen’s rape prosecution had been thrown out and appealed. It centred on Ardin’s accusation that Assange had torn off a condom during sex, after she had insisted he wear one.
It’s the three accusations by Ardin that have now lapsed, leaving her no longer party to the prosecution. However, the minor rape accusation has another five years on the books. Initially Assange supporters hoped that this accusation too could be dismissed. Wilen, the complainant, had initially told police that she had never wanted Assange prosecuted, and she had been hounded into going to by people around her — Ardin had taken her to a police station where a friend of Ardin’s was a duty officer. The duty officer was later reprimanded for posting “prosecute Assange” messages on her Facebook page.
The prosecution was further complicated by proof that Ardin had attempted to destroy evidence — two tweets that showed she was well-disposed to Assange days after the alleged sexual assault — evidence from friends of Wilen’s that she had remarked/joked about making money from the accusations, and Ardin’s production of a torn condom one week after prosecution was reinstated (and more than a fortnight after the sexual encounter in question), on which no DNA could be found.
The accusations came at the height of Assange’s visibility, and public support for WikiLeaks’ release of the Cablegate files — nearly 250,000 diplomatic cables showing US manipulation and interference in dozens of countries, leaked to WikiLeaks by US military communications grunt Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning. The accusations split mass support for Assange — on the left and across to the centre and libertarian right — right down the middle. His reputation was further damaged in the English-speaking world by a report on extradition proceedings by The Guardian, after WikiLeaks and the paper had discontinued their association with each other. Based on a leaked copy of the police report, the article (which your correspondent filleted at great length in The Monthly) constructed the rough consensual foreplay reported by Ardin as coercive, even though Ardin was not making a complaint based on that part of the encounter. And it omitted the final part of Wilen’s testimony, in which she breaks down and claims that she never wanted Assange prosecuted, and that she had been “railroaded” into it by the people around her.
But Assange has also been to a degree less-than-well served by some of his most defenders, such as John Pilger, who have repeatedly refused to go into the details of the accusations, or to foreground The Guardian‘s major role in damaging the reputation of their former co-publisher. This refusal to make clear how far the accusations fall below any reasonable standard of rape has given the impression that Assange has no requirement to answer accusations because he’s Julian Assange. He has no need to answer the accusations because they’re the product of a Swedish state process that has made all shades of consensual, if misjudged or jerky, sex, liable to prosecution.
The discontinuation of the prosecution based around Ardin’s accusations has not got Assange out of the cross-hairs. In the years since, Wilen’s attitude appears to have hardened. She has sacked Borgstrom as her lawyer and engaged a feminist law firm that specialises in trafficked women and honour killings. Several months ago Sweden agreed to interview Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy on this continuing accusation, but talks between Sweden and Ecuador broke down on the details. The UK has refused to allow Assange to travel to Ecuador from the embassy.
And there it rests — until the next shocking revelation. Or 2020 …