Sweden ponders sex charges against WikiLeaks leader Assange

Depending on where you stand, the possible sexual coercion and molestation charges against WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange are a CIA plot, the revenge of women scorned, or proof positive that he is a role model for reckless endangerment.

Assange is not yet formally charged by the Swedish authorities, but wanted for questioning after complaints by two women claiming they were forced to have unprotected sex with him during brief affairs last August. It’s Sweden’s second attempt to pursue sex crimes accusations: the first was dismissed by a senior prosecutor.

But the case was reopened as a deluge of damning U.S. documents hit the Internet from WikiLeaks, prompting suspicions that the allegations were more than skin deep.

The women’s Swedish lawyer, Claes Borgstrom — a former equal opportunities ombudsman — dismisses such rumours as “very unfair,” and says both have been the victims of an Internet smear campaign that has exposed them to public ridicule.

Assange’s status as an electronic rock star makes rumours of murky plots unsurprising, Borgstrom told Britain’s daily Guardian. But he insisted, “there is nothing, zero.”

Meanwhile, Assange’s lawyer in London, where he is being held pending a Dec. 14 hearing, told the Evening Standard that “the honeytrap has been sprung. Dark forces are at work. After what we’ve seen so far you can reasonably conclude this is part of a greater plan.”

At the heart of the convoluted case are Sweden’s tough sexual assault laws, aimed at ensuring that “no” means no. The fact that the affairs took place in the Scandinavian country increase the chances of charges, if not conviction.

“Our definition of rape puts Sweden in a special position internationally,” says Klara Hradilova Selin, a research analyst at the National Council for Crime Prevention in Stockholm. “When you do something sexual to somebody who is asleep, intoxicated, or unable to refuse, it’s illegal.”

Sweden has an unusually high rate of rape, she says, because of the broad definition, and that each sexual episode is counted separately, even if a married woman reports her husband for attacking her over a period of years. Men accused of rape in long term relationships also have boosted chances of jail time.

The seriousness of a sex charge depends on the amount of force used, says University of Stockholm law professor Petter Asp. But it’s “not uncommon” for Swedish women to file complaints if they were coerced to have sex while too tipsy or tired to resist, even without brute force

According to Sweden’s tightened 2005 sexual assault law, the mildest form of illicit advance — or sexual coercion — merits “imprisonment for at most two years.” But the charge is more serious if the perpetrator shows “particular ruthlessness or brutality.”

Borgstrom claims that the two Swedish women “were molested by Julian Assange at two different times, independently of each other.”

That allegedly meant unwelcome unprotected sex: For one woman while asleep, and against the wishes of the other. Although the encounters began with their consent, both women claimed that only included the use of condoms, and that they were worried about the possibility of sexually transmitted disease.

They joined forces when the second woman, a young artist with whom Assange allegedly had a brief affair, unwittingly turned to the first for help in tracking him down. She was worried about infection and wanted him to take an AIDS test. The first woman, reportedly a feminist academic, had organized the lecture where the second met Assange, and had invited him to stay in her home for several days around the same time.

They compared notes, and found they had similar concerns. Assange, ever mindful of plots against him, was apparently elusive.

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