In May the long-standing sexual assault investigation against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was formally closed by a Swedish prosecutor. Some on the left have hailed this as a victory. However, this is not a real step forward.
The main fear of Assange supporters is that he may be extradited to the US over his involvement in Wikileaks. This would be a blow to whistle-blowers everywhere. The fact is, US authorities have no intention to stop their pursuit of Assange, and he still faces arrest in the United Kingdom if he leaves the Ecuadorian embassy where he currently resides. It may be easier for Assange to be extradited from the UK to the US without Sweden complicating the process.
The closing of the investigation in Sweden says nothing about Assange’s guilt or innocence. And on some parts of the left, the response to the allegations against Assange has taken the form of a reactionary backlash against the rights of victims of rape.
Wikileaks and US imperialism
Assange founded Wikileaks in 2006 as a way for whistle-blowers to leak information anonymously. The organisation has published many secret documents exposing the corruption that is rife in capitalist society. They are most famous for the events of 2010 when, in contact with US soldier Chelsea Manning, they released an enormous number of documents, including video footage, revealing war crimes committed by the US Army and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The footage released under the name ‘Collateral Murder’ shows the shooting of 19 civilians, including two journalists, by the crews of two US helicopters in Iraq. The Iraq War Logs and Afghan War Diary recorded the deaths of thousands of civilians not previously admitted to by the US government. These leaks showed the true nature of the war, and the huge price paid by ordinary people in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hands of the US military.
In the same year, they also released 250,000 classified diplomatic cables sent by US embassies. These contained a number of revelations embarrassing to governments around the world. Particularly damaging to US diplomacy was the revelation of widespread spying on US allies.
US establishment responds
As well as provoking a diplomatic crisis with their allies, the exposures threatened to deepen mistrust of US imperialism. A massive campaign by the US media accused Wikileaks of putting lives in danger by exposing the mass slaughter of civilians in the US-led war. They did this without a trace of irony.
A financial blockade was organised on Wikileaks by PayPal, Visa and Mastercard. These businesses refused to process donations to the whistle-blower organisation. There were suggestions that Assange could be pursued for espionage, and some people even called for his assassination.
For Chelsea Manning, the retribution was severe. Manning has only recently been released after more than 7 years imprisonment for her role in the leaks. She was subjected to humiliating treatment, kept in solitary confinement for a year and half, and twice attempted to take her own life.
Sexual assault allegations
In August 2010, two Swedish women made allegations of rape and molestation against Julian Assange. The timing led many to believe that the allegations were connected to the US anger.
Shortly after, Assange left Sweden for the UK, so the Swedish authorities began proceedings to extradite him. In 2012 he sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, citing concerns that Sweden would allow his further extradition to the US over his work with Wikileaks. Until 2015, London police maintained a £12 million, 24-hour watch waiting for Assange to exit the embassy.
Questions were raised about the conduct of the Swedish authorities. The Swedish government refused to promise protection for Assange from possible US pursuit, the Swedish premier publicly labelled Assange an ‘enemy of the people’, and the prosecution strangely delayed Assange’s final interview and arrest until he had already left the country.
On top of that, the case was only pursued at the urging of lawyer and politician Claes Borgström. It is difficult to imagine such intervention into a rape accusation against anyone who didn’t have the profile of Julian Assange. However, the political exploitation of the case by Swedish authorities does not mean that the women’s accusations are false.
Defend both Wikileaks and victims of sexual assault
Katrin Axelsson and Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape wrote in August 2012, “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 … Whether or not Assange is guilty of sexual violence, we do not believe that is why he is being pursued.”
Their comments reflected a mood that also existed on protests against the US pursuit of Wikileaks. That mood was that activists should make no judgement about the sexual assault claims, but should vigorously oppose their use as a political tool to discredit a whistle-blower. Claims of sexual assault deserve a proper investigation, and this is hampered by the political pursuit of Assange.
However, another response also appeared on the left, and that was to deny that there could be any substance to the allegations at all. This is what has led some to call Sweden’s dropping of the investigation a ‘victory’. John Pilger wrote, “Julian Assange has been vindicated because the Swedish case against him was corrupt.” Human rights lawyer Renata Avila said: “But now, finally, for the second time, we can say that he is innocent in the Swedish system.” But the withdrawal or corruption of an investigation says nothing about the guilt or innocence of the accused.
Sweden far from feminist
When the allegations first arose, the two women’s names quickly became widely shared online through the Swedish site Flashback (notorious for slander and rumours). Their history was trawled by supporters of Assange. One of the women was slandered extensively. Her sexual history was brought into question and she was called, variously, a witch, a spy, a lesbian, a jilted lover and a “junior inquisitor” – for having been a Gender Equality Officer at her student union.
A commonly repeated lie is that Swedish law is ‘ultra-feminist’, and that the accusations were for crimes that would not be recognised elsewhere – but the UK’s High Court ruled that the Swedish offenses had counterparts in British law. In any case, socialists should reject the idea that capitalist law be the standard for rape legislation.
Capitalism systematically oppresses and objectifies women, exploiting them in roles that are convenient for bosses, pushing the idea that women must be home-makers, mothers, and sexual objects, commodifying women’s sexuality. Our society teaches men to believe they are entitled to women’s bodies.
The response to this case exposes the fact that many people, including prominent figures on the left, continue to believe that sexual consent is somehow an ambiguous or tricky thing to interpret. This is part of the reason that police and other authorities constantly fail to take these crimes seriously.
Sweden is little better than most Western countries on this issue. Where progress has been made, it has been under the pressure of movements from below. Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna, our sister party in Sweden, is active in the Swedish feminist movement, including in the ongoing fight for all instances of ‘unconsensual sex’ to be correctly regarded as rape.
This fight has a long way to go. Just last year in Sweden, a man who raped two women while they were sleeping was released on the grounds that he supposedly ‘did not understand that they were asleep.’ This is how lightly the Swedish legal system treats one of the allegedly ‘ultra-feminist’ crimes Assange was accused of.
A socialist approach
We cannot claim to know the truth of the accusations, particularly without a proper investigation. It is true that false accusations happen in rare circumstances, but this is only more reason for an investigation. If Swedish authorities have manufactured a case to attack Wikileaks through Assange, then this deserves to be exposed.
Socialists call for democratic oversight of the police by committees of workers, to compel them to prioritise crimes against working people, including sexual assault. A genuine victory would be a guarantee of immunity for whistle-blowers, as well as proper and timely investigation of sexual assault claims and protection for victims of assault. We cannot rely on the UK or Swedish authorities to achieve these things. Working-class people must put their stamp on the situation.
Only a movement of ordinary people could create a situation where Assange can leave the protection of the Ecuadorian embassy with no fear of US pursuit. Similarly, only such a movement can bring Swedish authorities to account for their handling of sexual assault cases, and fight back against the slandering of accusers.
Socialists must stand unequivocally for an international, anti-imperialist movement that actively demands justice for victims of sexual assault.
By David Elliott