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STOCKHOLM, Feb 6 2011 (IPS) - The attempt to extradite the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange for questioning over allegations of sexual crimes has caused a big debate about the Swedish justice system abroad. The case has also brought the comparatively broad definitions of what constitutes rape in this country into the limelight.
The 39-year-old Australian citizen, who currently is out on bail in the UK, is wanted in Sweden over allegations of one rape, two cases of sexual molestation and one case of unlawful coercion. The allegations have been made by two women who met Assange in Sweden during a period of ten days last august, just as Wikileaks was releasing classified U.S. documents.
Assange denies the allegations and has not formally been charged with any offence, but is wanted by the Swedish police for questioning. Assange will face a full extradition hearing on February 7-8 when a judge in London will examine the demand to extradite him to Sweden.
According to leaked police documents published by the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang and the British daily The Guardian, the two women admit to having initiated consensual sexual relations with Assange. But according to them he would not listen to them when they insisted that a condom be used.
“Assange was violent and rough. All I wanted was him to stop,” says one of the women in a police interview, published by Verdens Gang.
The two women behind the charges have been accused by some of Assange’s supporters of making malicious complaints or acting as “honeytraps” in a wider conspiracy to discredit him and Wikileaks.
The journalist John Pilger dismissed the case as a “political stunt” in an interview with ABC news, and the Academy-award winning filmmaker and writer Michael Moore has published an open letter on his website where he claims that rapists usually enjoy impunity in Sweden.
According to Moore, the “message to rapists” is “Sweden loves you!”. “So imagine our surprise when all of a sudden you decided to go after one Julian Assange on sexual assault charges,” writes Moore, who also claims that “Sweden has the highest per capita number of reported rapes in Europe.”
Klara Hradilova-Selin, research analyst at The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (BRÅ), says it is true that the number of reported rapes in Sweden have increased considerably in recent years. But she says that Michael Moore’s letter is full of “sheer folly”.
“He paints a picture of Sweden as a country where rapists roam free on the streets, while Mr Assange is hunted for absolutely nothing. Which is completely incorrect,” says Klara Hradilova-Selin.
Klara Hradilova-Selin thinks that the focus in the international debate in some cases has been built on the premise that Assange is innocent, and she says that even though the case has not yet been investigated many pundits act as if they already are certain about all the facts.
“It is only natural that there are speculations about a possible conspiracy considering the person involved is so controversial, but the fact is that no one knows anything about the case before it has been fully investigated,” Klara Hradilova-Selin told IPS.
According to BRÅ the main factor behind the high number of reported rapes in Sweden is the fact that there is a comparatively broad definition of what constitutes rape. This definition means that more sexual crimes are registered as rape than in most other countries. Since the law was amended in 2005 the number of reported rapes has increased considerably, as many cases that used to be reported as sexual abuse are now registered as rape.
Klara Hradilova-Selin says that the crimes Julian Assange is suspected to have committed would likely be punishable in most other countries too, but might not be described as rape.
She also underscores that the local authorities are making a lot of effort to register all cases that can be suspected rape. This is done at a very early stage of the process, so cases that later turn out to be some other sex crime, or no crime at all, are also included. And in addition to this, all individual acts are registered – not just the latest crime.
“If a woman reports that she has been raped by her partner twice a week during the last year, this can result in hundreds of registrations of rape in the statistics, whereas the same case would only result in one registration of rape in other countries. It is impossible to compare statistics for reported crimes between different countries,” says Klara Hradilova-Selin.
She also points out that Swedish women are more likely today to report abuses to the police than they were before. While many victims previously did not dare to believe the system would support them, more do so now because attitudes have changed, says Klara Hradilova-Selin.
“All in all there are many reasons why more rapes are reported to the police, but this does not mean that rape is more common in Sweden compared to other countries,” she says.
According to Klara Hradilova-Selin comparisons between countries based on large surveys of the general public, so-called victim surveys, instead show that the number of sexual crimes in Sweden is around the average mark in Europe.
Mårten Schultz, associate professor at the faculty of law at Uppsala university, is critical of the way many media outlets have reported about the question of guilt – both whether Assange has actually committed any crimes, but also by questioning the credibility of the two women. These are all questions that no one can be certain about for the moment, says Schultz.
“Some of the accusations against the women has been distasteful,” Schultz told IPS.
Schultz does not think that Swedish authorities have been particularly severe in the way they have treated Assange, as he was allowed to leave the country while waiting to be interviewed by the police.
“I think the alleged crimes, as they have been portrayed, would have been dealt with in the same way in most western countries. To have sex with someone who is unwilling and also asleep would probably be filed as rape or another kind of sexual offence in most western countries,” says Schultz.
Schultz does not think there are political motives behind the case, but he also says that it is obvious that many people have used the case for political ends. “I do not know what happened. The women could be CIA agents, but I really don’t think so – in fact it is completely unlikely.”
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