Misconstruing Moore and Amnesty International: The case against Assange

At last something remotely resembling a coherent response from the other side. Writing for The Nation, Katha Pollitt actually points to a statement from Michael Moore which diminishes the rape charges against Julian Assange:

Appearing on Keith Olbermann’s show after he put up $20,000 to help bail Assange out of a British jail, Swedish rape law expert Michael Moore called the case “a bunch of hooey”: “the condom broke during consensual sex.”1

Alas, this fails to hold up under scrutiny. Moore appeared on Olbermann’s show on December 14. His statement, in context:

Daniel Ellsberg told you about [how governments and corporations go after individuals] last week on how they went after him. This is—we‘ve seen this before. Now, his guilt or innocence of this—I mean, what he said they did. And the lawyer said this today in court in London that what they say he did and the charges, his condom broke during consensual sex. That is not a crime in Britain, and so they‘re making the point how can we—how can we extradite him over this?

This is all a bunch of hooey as far as I‘m concerned. The man at least has a right to be out of prison while awaiting the hearing, and I believe that—and this is why I participate in it. This is why I put up a chunk of the bail money. And, you know, I‘m proud to do it because I think this man and what he‘s doing, and what his group is doing is going to save lives.2

The Guardian article on the leaked Swedish police report that contained the more serious allegations did not appear until the 17th.3 Moore was, at worst, referring to a somewhat less serious version of the accusations as had actually been reported at that time. And it looks to me like he was referring not to the accusations themselves but to the motivations to pursue Assange for these claims and to the decision to deny Assange bail.

It is in the Guardian story, three days after Moore appeared on Olbermann’s show, that we learn that:

[Miss A] told police that she had tried a number of times to reach for a condom but Assange had stopped her by holding her arms and pinning her legs. The statement records Miss A describing how Assange then released her arms and agreed to use a condom, but she told the police that at some stage Assange had “done something” with the condom that resulted in it becoming ripped, and ejaculated without withdrawing.4

It is also in this story that we learn:

Early the next morning, Miss W told police, she had gone to buy breakfast before getting back into bed and falling asleep beside Assange. She had awoken to find him having sex with her, she said, but when she asked whether he was wearing a condom he said no. “According to her statement, she said: ‘You better not have HIV’ and he answered: ‘Of course not,'” but “she couldn’t be bothered to tell him one more time because she had been going on about the condom all night. She had never had unprotected sex before.”5

The issue of consent here remains largely as I wrote on the 21st, certainly not my ideal, but in line with my understanding of what, regrettably, is commonly accepted. It is a form of consent (or the lack thereof) that practically begs to be misunderstood.6 Indeed,

In submissions to the Swedish courts, [Assange’s lawyers] have argued that Miss W took the initiative in contacting Assange, that on her own account she willingly engaged in sexual activity in a cinema and voluntarily took him to her flat where, she agrees, they had consensual sex. They say that she never indicated to Assange that she did not want to have sex with him. They also say that in a text message to a friend, she never suggested she had been raped and claimed only to have been “half asleep”.7

According to the Guardian story, these lawyers also say,

“Both complainants say they did not report him to the police for prosecution but only to require him to have an STD test. However, his Swedish lawyer has been shown evidence of their text messages which indicate that they were concerned to obtain money by going to a tabloid newspaper and were motivated by other matters including a desire for revenge.”8

The Swedish prosecutors’ decision to pursue these allegations might be seen as undermining women’s rights to name what has been done to or with them but Amnesty International also criticizes Finnish practice:

In Finland, a victim of rape or sexual abuse can exercise her “free will” and ask the prosecutor not to prosecute. This opens up the possibility for the perpetrator or others to pressurize the victim to withdraw the charges, with the prosecutor having no means of assessing whether the victim is in fact acting of her own “free will”.

This sends a signal that it is up to the victim to decide whether a crime has been committed.9

There seems to be an inconsistency here between asserting women’s agency in consenting to sex and depriving them of it in naming rape that suggests a need for balance. This is not to deny that under multiple forms of duress, women may fail to name rape. But Assange’s lawyers appeal to a strong possibility that Swedish prosecutors, who had initially dropped the charges against Assange, have now gone overboard in pursuing them.10

Finally, Pollitt challenges a quote in Katrin Axelsson’s letter to the Guardian in which Axelsson wrote, “On 23 April 2010 Carina Hägg and Nalin Pekgul (respectively MP and chairwoman of Social Democratic Women in Sweden) wrote in the Göteborgs-Posten that ‘up to 90% of all reported rapes never get to court. In 2006 six people were convicted of rape though almost 4,000 people were reported’.”11 12 At best, this is cherry-picking. I quoted the entire letter in my previous posting on this topic.13 Pollitt does not address Axelsson’s claim that, “Though Sweden has the highest per capita number of reported rapes in Europe and these have quadrupled in the last 20 years, conviction rates have decreased.”14 Further, she diminishes Amnesty’s harsh assessment of Sweden’s enforcement of rape laws15 by adding parenthetically, “Sweden tracks rape by individual acts, not by number of victims, so its rape rate is lower than it looks.” In fact even the statistics which Pollitt relies upon when she quotes Amnesty International’s Katarina Bergehed saying, “In 2006 there were 3,074 rapes and 227 convictions,” are pretty dismal.16

But I guess when the target is Julian Assange, even that conviction rate is pretty good.

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