Too much 'rape' in WikiLeaks coverage

'Not indicted yet' isn't the same as 'the charge isn't rape'

Just a quick reminder from the other day, when it came out that the charges Sweden is pursuing against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assenge have very little to do with what we in the U.S. would call "rape" -- that is, unwanted sexual activity imposed on the victim by force, fraud or coercion.

News reports appearing since Assange surrendered to British authorities last night sometimes make a point of saying Sweden's attempt to extradite him is strictly for questioning; that he hasn't been formally charged with anything yet.

They aren't as careful to describe the circumstances behind the charge and why the odd Swedish c "sex by surprise," which is the charge for which Assange is actually wanted, means in Western legal terms.

Sweden isn't charging him with rape; it's charging him with not responding quickly enough to his partners' concern about broken condoms. The clearest explanation I've seen of the events leading to the charges is here.

Even one analysis using the charge as a way to push for stronger anti-rape and sexual exploitation laws refers to "sex by surprise" as "quite a minor" charge, and changes the topic to focus on how women making accusations of sexual misbehavior are treated and how often legitimate complaints are ignored or minimized by automatic "blame the victim" reflexes in law enforcement.

Just for comparison, the penalty for "sex by surprise" could carry a charge of 5,000 Kronor -- about $715. A 1992 Dept. of Justice study found the average sentence for rape in the U.S. is 11.8 years, of which 5.4 years are served.

Law enforcement -- not specific laws -- is the key with WikiLeaks.

Neither the British nor U.S. governments cares much what charges they can lay against Assange, as long as they can lock him up until they can decide what else to do with him, and how to get him convicted on charges of espionage, sabotage and, for all we know, extremely poor fashion choices.

Assange is a poster child for a lot of offenses, and appears to be guilty of at least some very serious ones. Let's focus on those.

He may be guilty of acting like a selfish jerk in his relationships with women, but doesn't appear guilty of brutally attacking them. Accusing him of rape for behavior that amounts to a violation of safe-sex minimizes both the charge and the stature of WikiLeaks as a focal point that should get a day in court to clarify who, when and under what conditions secret government data can be posted online.

The Brits and U.S. should get off the prurient charges and just get on with charges of espionage or whatever else they think they can stick him with. Given rules in the EU protecting the accused from prosecutions that amount to harassment, and the number of countries from which WikiLeaks operates, just figuring out where and how to set up an indictment will be a trick.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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