Julian Assange
Credit: Newsonline/Flickr

It’s going to be interesting to see how conservatives respond to the latest developments in the Julian Assange saga.

At the beginning of May, Julian Assange was sentenced to fifty weeks in a British prison for skipping out on his bail and holing up for seven and a half years in Ecuador’s London embassy. There isn’t a whole lot of controversy about this because it’s very clear that Assange violated the conditions of his release. He sought refuge from extradition to Sweden where he faced charges of rape, although he and his lawyers claimed that his true concern was that he’d be sent to the United States to answer for his role in publishing the Chelsea/Bradley Manning leaks of classified military and State Department documents.

The original contours of this dispute seem badly outdated after Assange’s decision to work with Russian military intelligence to help Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election. Yet, it’s still the original Manning leaks and the Swedish rape charges that are going to define what happens to Assange when he completes his 50-week sentence in the United Kingdom.

There are now competing extradition requests for Assange. In 2017, Sweden had discontinued its rape investigation, but as of Monday, it has reopened its case and wants to put Assange on trial. The United States has already initiated an extradition request:

U.S. authorities accuse Assange of scheming with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to break a password for a classified government computer.

Manning served several years in prison for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks. She was jailed again in March after refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating the secret-spilling organization.

Ben Brandon, a lawyer representing the U.S. government, said in court Thursday [May 2] that U.S. investigators had obtained details of chatroom communications between Manning and Assange in 2010. Brandon said the pair had “engaged in real-time discussions regarding Chelsea Manning’s dissemination of confidential records to Mr. Assange.”

He said the documents allegedly downloaded from a classified U.S. computer included 90,000 activity reports from the war in Afghanistan, 400,000 Iraq war-related reports, 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessments and 250,000 State Department cables.

The U.S. charge against Assange carries a maximum five-year prison sentence, but Assange is worried the U.S. could add further, more serious allegations against him.

These charges are considerably more contentious than the bail violation. There are a lot of possible implications for a free press if WikiLeaks’ founder is imprisoned for accepting classified information. The rape charges against Assange are less than straightforward and will probably be seen in a different light in the #MeToo era.

American conservatives would traditionally be unsympathetic to someone who publishes classified information for the purpose of embarrassing the United States and exposing military malfeasance. But they feel grateful to Assange for helping to defeat Hillary Clinton. They also think he and the president have been wrongly accused of entering into a conspiracy with Russian military intelligence. As for the rape charges, I think the details of encounters that allegedly began consensually but turned coercive will present a real dilemma for Republicans.

Here is what Assange is accused of doing:

Unlawful coercion – On 13-14 August 2010, in the home of the injured party [AA] in Stockholm, Assange, by using violence, forced the injured party to endure his restricting her freedom of movement. The violence consisted in a firm hold of the injured party’s arms and a forceful spreading of her legs whilst lying on top of her and with his body weight preventing her from moving or shifting.

Sexual molestation: On 13-14 August 2010, in the home of the injured party [AA] in Stockholm, Assange deliberately molested the injured party by acting in a manner designed to violate her sexual integrity. Assange, who was aware that it was the expressed wish of the injured party and a prerequisite of sexual intercourse that a condom be used, consummated unprotected sexual intercourse with her without her knowledge.

Sexual molestation: On 18 August 2010 or on any of the days before or after that date, in the home of the injured party [AA] in Stockholm, Assange deliberately molested the injured party by acting in a manner designed to violate her sexual integrity i.e. lying next to her and pressing his naked, erect penis to her body.

Rape – On 17 August 2010, in the home of the injured party [SW] in Enköping, Assange deliberately consummated sexual intercourse with her by improperly exploiting that she, due to sleep, was in a helpless state. It is an aggravating circumstance that Assange, who was aware that it was the expressed wish of the injured party and a prerequisite of sexual intercourse that a condom be used, still consummated unprotected sexual intercourse with her. The sexual act was designed to violate the injured party’s sexual integrity.

You would think that a political movement that wants to outlaw abortion would understand that it’s a very serious matter to ignore it when a woman’s consent is predicated on a condom being used during intercourse. Even if she has previously consented to intercourse, violating this requirement prevents her from retaining autonomy over her reproductive function. It’s a form of rape, and that’s why it’s being charged as rape.

Yet, I don’t see a lot of sympathy for this point of view among conservatives. Many of them do not believe it is possible for a man to rape his wife. Many of them do not think contraception should be used, and it’s not uncommon for them to argue that contraception should be illegal. Organizations that provide contraception are routinely attacked and provisions of federal law that make contraception more affordable and available are challenged in court and marked for repeal.

This doesn’t add up to a strong belief that women should be able to prevent pregnancy. It doesn’t form a basis for understanding how a consenting woman can withdraw her consent or make her consent conditional. I think the hard part is going to be convincing conservatives that what Assange is accused of doing should be a crime.

Some people will defend Assange against the charges he’s facing in America, which are completely unrelated to the 2016 election and could have real First Amendment repercussions. That’s a legitimate debate, and a lot hinges on the government’s claim that Assange was not a passive recipient of classified material but an active participant in the hacking. But conservatives are going to have to decide whether they think Assange is being railroaded because he helped Trump. I think I already know how they feel about him being charged with rape. They’ll say not wanting to use contraception shouldn’t be a crime and the women gave their consent. Will conservatives try to turn him into a martyr over this too?

A lot will depend on whether America or Sweden wins the extradition fight.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com