Sunday, 24 June 2012

Unpicking the Assange myths, and how survivors of rape have rights too


Ok, so I know I'm a bit late to the party on this one, but I’ve had a really busy week and y’know, I’m editing my kid’s book…but here I am now, ready to blog about the latest step in what I’m billing Assange: the fight against justice and due process. 

This week Assange sought bail in the Ecuadorian Embassy, after the Supreme Court decided that, despite his appeal, he could still be extradited to Sweden to face questioning about two alleged sexual assaults against two women. 

Here’s a reminder of the defence team’s description of Assange’s actions. I say this every time but please bear in mind that this is his DEFENCE!!:

"AA felt that Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina directly, which she did not want since he was not wearing a condom … She did not articulate this. Instead she therefore tried to turn her hips and squeeze her legs together in order to avoid a penetration … AA tried several times to reach for a condom, which Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and trying to penetrate her with his penis without using a condom. AA says that she felt about to cry since she was held down and could not reach a condom and felt this could end badly."

“'They fell asleep and she woke up by his penetrating her. She immediately asked if he was wearing anything. He answered: "You." She said: "You better not have HIV." He said: "Of course not." She may have been upset, but she clearly consented to its [the sexual encounter's] continuation and that is a central consideration.”

Every time Assange’s case hits the headlines, the same things happen. The same rape apologism emerges and the same Assange myths are parroted. Despite the fact that so many of these myths have been shown to be untrue multiple times since his arrest in 2010, they are still being repeated as though they’re gospel.

Firstly, we have the myth that what Assange allegedly did (as spoken by his defence) is not illegal under UK law, and so therefore he can’t be extradited to Sweden. It wasn’t rape, the myth goes, it was ‘sex by surprise’. 

Well, sex by surprise, however and whichever way you swing it, is rape. Penetrating someone when they are sleeping is rape, in the UK, in Sweden, in the USA – in fact in any country where rape is illegal. Blogger and lawyer David Allen Green has the info here about how the allegation is still illegal in the UK. 

Of course, Assange is innocent before proven guilty. It might be that when the evidence is presented, and he answers police questions, he didn’t commit any offence. But if anyone penetrates a woman whilst she was sleeping, as the defence describes, and if anyone physically coerces a woman into sex, as described, then that is illegal. No ifs, no buts. If a person is found guilty of doing either of those things in a court of law, then they are found guilty of rape and sexual assault. It isn’t just illegal in Sweden because they have a wacky ‘feminazi conspiracy government hell bent on repressing men’. It’s illegal because it’s rape, it’s sexual assault, it’s a gross violation of another person’s bodily autonomy. 

The idea that what Assange is accused of is not illegal in the UK has become incredibly embedded in the popular imagination of this case. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who I respect, who are really smart, who still believe that he’s only accused of some leftfield Swedish law, that what he did is perfectly fine in the UK. Not only is this hampering a lot of reporting around the case, but it’s also setting a very worrying precedent about what we understand rape and sexual assault to be. 

If we continue down a line where we’re openly saying that penetrating a sleeping woman without consent isn’t rape, then we’re creating a culture where we’re redefining what we mean by rape. There’s already a huge amount of confusion among young people about consent. When public figures defend Assange on TV, when they imply and say that what he’s accused of isn’t rape, they are perpetuating and encouraging rape myths that disempower victims and survivors, and silence their voices. They’re saying to thousands of women that what happened to them wasn’t rape. The impact this could have on women who are raped whilst asleep or unconscious is much more far reaching than they realise. They’re encouraging a culture where these women won’t be believed, and where the right we all have to name what happens to us is taken away. 

I think Assange apologists need to think about that. They need to understand that it isn’t for them to tell women who’ve been raped whilst they’ve slept that what happened to them isn’t really rape. It is. 

The other big myth in the Assange case is that if he’s extradited to Sweden, then he will be whisked off to the US of A and executed. 

Now, recently I’ve been doing a lot of research as part of my job in to the death penalty, and also on rendition. No-one at the moment is more cynical than I am about the often-appalling American justice system. 

But I simply find it very, very hard to believe that Assange will be extradited from Sweden. Firstly because Sweden will not extradite anyone to face the death penalty or for political offences.  (HT to Stavvers for that link, her blog on this issue is here). In fact, if Assange was going to be extradited to the US, well, the UK can do that. In fact, the UK government is so extradition-happy right now, we’ve been trying to send a suspected terrorist to Jordan, even though we know the evidence collected against him was gained by torture. If I was Assange, I’d take my chances in Sweden, who, as it happens also takes a pretty hard line against rendition. (again, unlike the UK). 

In fact, one country I wouldn’t be taking my chances with is Ecuador. A country that is, after all, pretty anti freedom of expression. You know, that thing that Assange is supposed to be an ambassador for. The reason he has so many fans in the first place. Does he not care that his new Ecuadorian government buddies clamp down on journalists that disagree with their work? Has he so thoroughly abandoned his principles that he seeks asylum with a government that are so completely opposed to the one-time ethos of Wikileaks? Did he have any principles in the first place? 

The final myth is that the only reason these allegations are being taken so seriously is because governments across the world want to bury and discredit Assange. And you know what? There may well be some truth in this one. Rape accusations, on the whole, aren’t taken very seriously. In fact, the Met have recently revealed just how un-seriously they took scores of rape allegations as they falsified reports and hid evidence. The estimates are there that between 80,000-100,000 women are raped in the UK every year, and still we only manage to convict 6.5% of those cases. So perhaps the Assange case was taken more seriously, was chased more thoroughly, for political reasons. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Because the point here is that ALL rape allegations should be taken seriously. All of them. Every woman who goes to the police and reports a rape should be listened to, heard and taken seriously. It doesn’t matter why this was the case in December 2010. It matters why this isn’t the case for every woman. 

In the end, in the middle of the media circus that has seen women like Jemima Khan stump up bail of £1000s for a man accused of rape, are two women. Two women whose voices have been ignored, silenced, belittled. Who have had unfounded and wicked accusations made against them in the court of popular opinion. Two women who simply want their day in court, who want to see due process and justice. Assange has rights. He has the right to claim asylum, he has the right to innocence before proven guilty. But what’s so often forgotten in this is that survivors of rape and sexual violence have rights too.

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