Last month, Swedish prosecutors dropped their preliminary investigation into an allegation of rape made against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The stalemate between the prosecution and Assange, which had been ongoing for seven years, revealed an antagonism of hierarchy between political liberalism and feminism, and opens up questions about the difficulties of intersecting social identities.
In 2010, the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office issued an arrest warrant for Assange on account of two separate allegations: one of rape and one of molestation. Since 2012, he has been seeking asylum in the London-based Ecuadorean embassy to avoid extradition. During Assange’s 2010 visit to Stockholm on a speaking trip, two women reported that they had experienced nonconsenting sexual encounters with him.
But amidst those seeking to gain justice for of his alleged victims through a fair trial, was a prominent vocal core of support intent on silencing the claims of sexual assault as a ‘political stunt’; enabling the idolisation of Assange as a heroic whistleblower to take precedence over his potential status as sexual predator.
The two Swedish women behind the charges were accused by his supporters of making malicious complaints or being “honeytraps” in a wider conspiracy to discredit him, politicising the debate into an opposing binary between one man’s plight for freedom of speech versus a concocted plan to stifle a symbol of liberalism.
Assange’s supporters relied on the hotly contested ‘morning after regret’ defense of rape allegations, claiming it couldn’t have been assault as the supposed victim continued to sleep in the same bed, and remained amicable for the rest of Assange’s stay. This short-sighted argument completely discounts countless acts of sexual assault that occur between partners, friends, and acquaintances. Sexual violence is only rarely after-dark attacks committed by a stranger: 90% of rapes alone are committed by known men, and sexual violence in itself covers a broad spectrum, including many different types of coerced sexual encounters where a victim feels uncomfortable and powerless, not solely caricatured scenes of life-threatening violent scenarios.
The case enveloped an awkward clash of identity of an anti-establishment free-speech pioneer and sexual assaulter, as if the two could not exist mutually. A friend brought my attention to a comparison to be made connecting the Assange dilemma to the widely reported investigation into the death of O.J. Simpson’s wife, where the court, media and public had one of two choices: support SImpson as a black man, or denigrate him for being a domestic abuser and murderer. Recent exploration of the court case divulges how the defence utilised O.J. Simpson’s as a black man prone to racist stereotypes of violence and aggression to transcend his guilt. It was not possible at the time to condemn societal and judicial discrimination of black bodies whilst achieving justice for the victims of this man’s heinous crimes.
The inability to present a considered intersectional approach in these two cases, decades apart, has resulted in a silencing of victims voices, and an inability to get justice via a fair trial. We must publicly acknowledge the difficulty of dealing with more ambiguous and nuanced cases where things are not categorically clear cut. Is it possible to revere a figure such as Assange for exposing political injustice while reprimanding him for committing social injustices? Are we able to recognise and address racist stereotypes while issuing appropriate punishment where due, to achieve a level of justice for all?