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“…[V]iolence… threatens [the law] not by the ends that it may pursue but by its mere existence outside the law.  The same may be…suggested, if one reflects how often the figure of the “great” criminal, however, repellent his ends may have been, has aroused the secret admiration of the public.”
Walter Benjamin, The Critique of Violence
 
 

In December 2010, we saw the British justice system take action in two separate events related to crimes against Swedish women.  In the first Shrien Dewani, a British citizen of Indian descent, was accused of soliciting, paying for, and coordinating the horrific murder of his Swedish bride of two weeks, Anni Dewani, while on their honeymoon in South Africa the November prior. Anni Dewani was kidnapped at gunpoint, and was later found naked, beaten, and dead from a bullet through the neck after a dinner trip to the Gugulethu township in Cape Town.   Three men, including the driver of the limo, have been charged. Two have already begun long prison terms. One of them had his sentence reduced after implicating Dewani, a multimillionaire.  Detained in England at the request of the South African government, Dewani was released after his family put up £250,000 bail several days later.  He was tagged with an electronic ankle bracelet, subjected to curfews, his movements restricted, and required to report to the police daily.

At almost the same time, Julian Assange was also detained in England at the request of another government. He was (and is still) wanted for questioning in Sweden in the course of an investigation into possible sexual misconduct.  Since, even 18 months later, charges have still not been filed, we cannot be certain of the offense, but early indications were that he could be charged with continuing to have sex with one woman despite a broken condom,* and having failed to answer a police summons to be tested for STD’s; this crime is punishable by up to two years in prison.  He is also being investigated for a second crime, namely of having “sex by surprise” with another woman; this charge, if he were to be arrested and convicted, would carry a fine of 5,000 kronor, or $715.  While the circumstances surrounding these events are murky; at least one of the possible victims told the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet in an interview that, “It is quite wrong that we were afraid of him. He is not violent, and I do not feel threatened by him.”  She elaborated that, “The responsibility for what happened to me and the other girl lies with a man who had attitude problems with women.” Assange was initially denied bail, but at a later hearing was allowed £200,000 bail, with the additional requirement of  £40,000 in two separate sureties of  £20,000 each.  Released after nine days in jail, he faced an extradition hearing.  Like Dewani, he had to wear an electronic bracelet that monitored his movement.  His movements were restricted in house arrest fashion; he had curfews, and, had to report to the police daily.

All of this, of course, until his stay of execution ran out in June 2012. Assange then sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the UK, and requested political asylum. As of today, we know the upshot: The Brits threatened to invade the Ecuadorian Embassy. The Ecuadorian Embassy decided to give Assange asylum. The Brits refuse to give Assange safe passage to Ecuador, and remain outside the Ecuadorian Embassy ready to arrest him should he step outside.

It is rather interesting that Assange and Dewani had nearly identical conditions surrounding their detention.  Certainly, sexual abuse and murder are each serious charges; neither Dewani nor Assange should be exculpated without a proper judicial process.  However, there is a bizarre contrast in the treatment accorded to each when comparing the substance of the crimes in question. Dewani’s appear to be about coordinating and paying for the vicious murder of his own wife; still, he was almost immediately able to qualify for bail. Moreover, despite the vigorous protests of the South African national prosecutors office — an office that has already gained convictions in the case — he was released pending an extradition hearing. In March 2012, despite promises on the part of the South African prosecutor in charge of Dewani’s hearing, he was granted a stay by the London’s High Court. Why? Because “High Court judge Sir John Thomas said it would be unjust and oppressive to send Dewani back to South Africa in his present condition.” That is to say, Dewani was heard telling family that he would kill himself if extradited. As we all know, threats to self-inflicted harm are a fairly popular way to persuade the judge not to send you somewhere you don’t want to go: like to jail, to stand trial, or to be extradited to South Africa.**

As of today, Dewani is still in England, while two of his accomplices have been convicted, and sentenced to 18 and 25 years in prison, respectively, and the trial of one other accomplice in South Africa goes on.

I am thrilled by the UK’s zeal in wanting to protect the sexual rights of women. Seriously, it is a delight to know that the UK, like the US, and of course like that bastion of women’s rights, Sweden, has the interests of women at heart. But I wish that they could apply consistent, or even proportional standards to suspects like Dewani—as they do to Julian Assange. But as we know, perhaps all isn’t as it seems; this situation reminds me human rights activists like Former First Lady Laura Bush, who pointed out her deep concern for the rights of women in Afghanistan—coincidentally around the same time as Hubby Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan.

Whatever Assange’s crimes, unlike the US and the UK, they do not appear to include premeditated violence. It is not irrelevant that Assange is being sought after for some of the most daring non-violent ‘crimes’ that the world has seen since Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers: exposing the reckless and remorseless criminal actions of the United States and allied governments as they collectively pursue their “War on Terror.”  Its name aside, this war is not being conducted against a noun.  It includes real violence towards real people in real countries, with terrible effects on civilian populations; unsavory engagements with odious dictators; and sundry violations of long-standing agreements in favor of human rights and against arbitrary search, seizure, and torture.

Let’s consider the argument that Moe Tkacik made about the relevance of the suspicions about Assange to his position as Wikileaks courier. She points out that Assange is accused by two women for trying the sleazy trick of pulling off his condom in the middle of sex—and pretending it was an accident. As she argued shortly before she left the Washington City Paper:

The question of whether Assange is an incorrigible douchebag (and also, a liar) would only decisively matter if he was asking (or more likely knowing what we know, presumptuously expecting) us to take his word for it that Muammar Gaddafi doesn’t travel anywhere without his Bedouin tents and voluptuous Ukrainian nurse or the Arab Gulf states are privately rooting for the us to start shooting missiles at Iran, etc. etc. But trusting the judgment of those who impart information is actually the precise opposite of the point of Wikileaks; the organization he founded is by design merely a high-profile courier; what impact would have on your credit card bills if it turned out that your letter carrier was into child porn?\
 
Which is why all the media deconstruction of Assange’s seemingly well-cultivated mystique seems so suspiciously irrelevant to begin with: wouldn’t a ludicrously secretive network of ultra-sophisticated hackers be structurally impervious to any character assassination attempts on its weird-looking white-haired mascot? (Her links)
 

The actual threat posed by Julian Assange and his organization, Wikileaks, is the audacity of truth.  It is not the non-consensual (and as far as we know, non-violent) sexual acts presumably committed against two women that is source of the great criminality of Assange.  From the perspective of those who rule over us, Assange’s offense is exacerbated by the—not-so-secret—admiration of an international public, of billions of civilians across the globe who have watched in frustration as the flexing of sovereign and unchecked muscles have resulted in the widescale and often fatal bullying of innocents — women and men alike– with no repercussions, no contrition, and ultimately, no self-awareness of the fact that in the hands of Presidents Bush and Obama the rule of law has been transformed into the illusion of law: We—the US, Great Britain, France, and others in the Global North—will decide what law is, what crime is, what violence is, and you—citizens of the world will accept it, all of it, and like it.  Until, that is, great criminals like Julian Assange come along and remind us that there is a power greater than the violence of the state—a power to resist and challenge the pure acts of hooliganism, plunder, and plutocracy that the United States government and its allies defend as righteous acts of “spreading democracy.”

Does that mean that we should condone sexual deception? Not at all. Still:

  1. Assange is wanted for questioning in Sweden.
  2. Assange has still not been charged.
  3. It’s not clear that sexual deception, however vicious, is equivalent to sexual assault. Perhaps Sweden could accuse him of negligence or some equivalent charge. But let’s preserve the respect for victims of acquaintance rape and other forms of rape by recognizing the distinction between coercion and sexual assholishness. We might be able to construct a framework for the latter in its relationship to coercion. Still, as of yet, we don’t have a strong one, so let’s not elevate it to the complex category of rape.

Why is it that Dewani, A British citizen accused of plotting to murder his wife is receiving more lenient treatment than a man who has not yet been charged with rape?  If in fact Assange is only wanted by the Swedish authorities for questioning, they could have found some way to accommodate the very real concerns that Assange, once in Sweden, could be rushed to the United States to face an unfair trial. It’s too late for that. But perhaps, now that Ecuador has stood up to the British government, the UK might find some way to show its “honorable” intentions–by negotiating for an independent third-country investigator for Assange. And by insisting that Dewani be extradited to South Africa for the–substantive–charges that he faces.

Perhaps—even though Assange may be the great criminal, and Dewani may be a heinous criminal, too much of the world is aware of the United States and the British governments as the real—and systemic—threats to the safety of men and women around the world. Until the UK can show that it can play fair, those  perceptions will continue.

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*Or not wearing a condom.

**The last three sentences were accidentally omitted from an earlier version of this column.

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Update: Here is the judgement of the London High Court in the dispute between Assange and the Swedish Prosecution Authority, July 12, 2011. Notice especially paragraphs 149-153: The decision has been taken not to charge him at this stage. As the High Court admits, had the same set of facts occurred in England or Wales, he would have already been charged. Still, the extradition order is not yet in order to prosecute him, but to interrogate him further.