Archive for rape

Innocent or guilty, if Assange’s rights aren’t upheld then neither are ours

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2012 by Jonathan Kent

I’ve been having heated exchanges with a number of Greens on Twitter about the Assange case.

Seeing people whose politics I identify with tweet “he’s a rapist” or “he’s guilty” frankly makes my blood run cold.  I like to think myself a member of a liberal political movement committed to due process, the rule of law and human rights not a lynchmob.

Clearly it’s better politics to button one’s lip and say nothing but it’s hardly principled to do so.  What might be more useful is a calm overview of what is happening in this case.

At stake are the human rights of three people: Julian Assange and his two accusers.  His accusers have the right to see their complaints of rape and sexual assault properly investigated, and if prosecutors decide there’s a case to be answered Assange should stand trial.

Meanwhile Assange has the right to a fair trial.  He also has the right not to put himself in jeopardy of rendition to the United States where he might face a military tribunal and the possibility of the death sentence by leaving the UK where his activities with Wikileaks have not been judged criminal.

Separating these two cases is hard because the British and Swedish governments make it very hard.  According to the Ecuadorian government which, though it has its own human rights issues, has now offered Assange political asylum, the Swedes have refused to give assurances that they won’t allow him to be extradited or rendered to the United States and the Swedes haven’t contradicted that claim.

Thus we face a damnable Gordion Knot of competing interests.  So let’s start at the beginning and remind ourselves how we got thus far.

Warrants for Assange’s arrest were initially issued late on Friday August 20th 2010 on one charge of rape and another of molestation.  The following day those warrants were cancelled.  Eva Finne, a Swedish Chief Prosecutor said: “I don’t think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape.”

In the days that followed the women’s case was taken up by Claes Borgstrom a lawyer and some time spokesperson for Sweden’s Social Democratic Party on gender equality.   Borgstrom is a committed campaigner, however his involvement in the case inevitably brought charges that it was becoming politicised.

The fact that police subsequently questioned Assange for an hour in Stockholm on Monday 30th August 2010, when he denied the charges, and also that two days later Sweden’s DPP Marianne Ny decided to resume the investigation, only gave those alleging a political motive more ammunition.

Assange left Sweden in late September after an application for a work permit had been refused and, it would appear, after avoiding attempts by Ny to interview him.  There is a reasonable question to be asked why, when police were initially so quick to question Assange, Ny took her time about doing so.  He’d been in the UK for several weeks when on November 18th Ny eventually went to court to secure an arrest warrant for him.

Meanwhile the hacking community came out heavily for Assange.  He was well known on the hacking circuit and many of those who hacked websites, avowedly in his cause, saw the entire episode as an attack on Assange’s work with Wikileaks – which gave the hacker motto ‘information wants to be free’ into its most dynamic and visceral incarnation ever.

Wikileaks had already upped the ante in its FOI campaigning in April 2010 by releasing video of a US helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed a number of civilians including a Reuters crew. Then it distributed hundreds of US diplomatic cables – the first major tranche (of 220) being put out on November 28th with thousands more following over the next year.

Quite disgracefully hackers and supporters outed Assange’s two alleged victims and they were subsequently vilified in social media.   Even Assange’s London defence team, assembled to fight Sweden’s attempts to extradite him, were careful not to demean his accusers.  One of the most neutral accounts of the key proceedings reviewing the evidence is provided by The Guardian.  Close examination of proceedings reveals that Assange counsel was not accepting the alleged victims accusations but was rather, as would be quite normal, taking them at face value for the purpose of testing whether his  alleged actions amounted to a crime under English law which counsel argued they would not.  His critics have chosen to read or have apparently miseread his defence counsel’s remarks as an admission of guilt.  What doesn’t seem to be in dispute is that there were sexual relations but the issue of consent is.  His defence team have not conceded that he committed a sex crime.

That is for a court to decide.  At present no charges have been filed in Sweden.  Assange is wanted for questioning.  He has repeatedly offered to be questioned in London and that offer has, apparently, been refused.  Instead he exhausted his appeals against extradition and was due for deportation when he sought asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy.  Now we have arrived at a juncture where the UK government is apparently hinting it will enter the embassy to seize Assange.

So, what to make of this mess.

Firstly it is impossible to dissociate Assange the FOI activist from Assange the accused.  He has seriously angered some extremely powerful interests, notably the United States government.

The US has been expanding its jurisdiction for several years.  The Gary McKinnon and Richard O’Dwyer cases are examples of UK citizens pursued for the US though they committed no crime in the UK and never set foot on US soil.  The situation has escalated into a major issue in the UK because of the perceived (disputed) difference in the weight of evidence each country needs to produce to secure extradition, with critics saying the bar is set far too low for extradition to the United States.

Likewise European arrest warrants are under scrutiny because British citizens can be extradited and held on remand without charges being levelled and on evidence that wouldn’t bear scrutiny in an English or a Scottish court.

So we face a situation where Assange believes that if sent to Sweden he will be delivered into the hands of the United States and face prosecution, possibly for treason (there is an irony if that is the case since one can only commit treason against one’s own state).

There’s precious little evidence to persuade Assange’s supporters that this isn’t a stitch up.

Put aside the claims of his defence team that his alleged actions wouldn’t be a crime if they had taken place in the UK.  That may be so, but plenty would then ask if they shouldn’t be.

Put aside the fact that he hasn’t been charged in Sweden.

Rather ask yourself this: why, when Britain’s own record on sexual violence against women is so shamefully bad, is the UK government apparently talking about violating the sovereign territory of Ecuador’s embassy in London in contravention of the 1961 Vienna Convention.

Its efforts in the cause of two Swedish women, whose allegations are yet to result in charges, are out of all proportion to the efforts it makes on behalf of thousands of British women who face sexual violence every year.

Still we ask for better street lighting, for more rape suites, for better training for police officers handling allegations of sexual violence and better public education.

And look at the statistics: in 2006/7, 800 people were convicted of rape despite one in 200 women reportedly being raped in that year – a conviction rate of around 1%.  Would the UK government go to so much trouble in any comparable case?  Has it ever prosecuted any foreign diplomat accused of rape in the UK without the explicit permission of that envoy’s government?

None of this means that Assange should be let of the hook.  Whatever he may have achieved in the cause of freedom of information does not absolve him of any crime he may have committed against his accusers.  He should face charges as and when they’re brought.  Every facility should be offered to the Swedes to question him so that a decision on charges can be made.  However he and his supporters fear that Swedish law and the stance of its conservative government would facilitate his speedy extradition to the US where former Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has already called for his assasination and where several prominent members of congress, including heads of key relevant committees, have demanded he face charges of espionage that carry a potential death penalty.

Rather the British government should seek assurances from Stockholm that nothing will happen that is not in accord with European Human Rights law and that Assange will not be extradited to face an unfair trial or possible execution.  No such arrangement has been sought or offered and I suspect it won’t be.  One must ask why an unprecedented ‘threat’ was levelled at the Ecuadoreans when if the real aim is to ensure Assange faces a proper trial in Sweden there are better ways to address what many see as Assange’s attempts to evade justice.

The whole episode leaves his two female accusers bruised and abused not only allegedly by Assange but also by some of Assange’s supporters and by the legal systems and governments of several countries.  They deserve justice and we should support genuine efforts to see they get it.

However we should not be prepare to see their plight hijacked by those who would surrender our hard won rights to a government in Washington that preaches one thing at home and pursues an entirely hypocritical line when it suits it abroad.

There’s another victim in all this – the cause of liberty.  We’re slowly but surely losing any moral standing we have to take despots around the world to task.  Every failing on our parts is used to justify abuses many times worse elsewhere.  Our real power comes from our principles.  Shame on those who sell them so cheap.


The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – Review

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2012 by Jonathan Kent

Warning contains spoilers


Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy raised the bar for crime writers the world over.  Part thriller, part noir and highly political, it gave us two enduring characters who stepped away from the page and became almost three dimensional.

The first is Larsson’s alter ego Michael Blomkvist.  Larsson was a left-wing activist, journalist, the editor of an investigative periodical Expo, a Swedish counterpart to Searchlight and an expert on far-right groups.  Blomkvist is co-founder of an investigative periodical, Millennium, that takes on the rich and the powerful and as a result regularly finds itself in trouble.

The second is the extraordinary Lisbeth Salander, one of the most captivating fictional creations in modern literature.  Victim of a violently abusive father, she’s thrown into state care after she sets fire to him for beating her mother and leaving her with brain damage.  Sexually, physically and pharmacologically abused through her incarceration she remains a ward of the state though she’s in her twenties, and making a living as an investigator through her ability to hack into computers.  As the novels unfold we come to know someone who is deeply scarred, vulnerable and yet possessed of an awesome facility for self preservation.  Salander becomes a modern avenging angel.

Not only did Larsson produce great characters and a truly gripping plot (I read the third volume in a little over 24 hours, stopping only to sleep), but Swedish friends attest to its being beautifully written (though I suspect the translation has rendered it rather more work-a-day).  So it’s a series that despite its popularity one would hope a film maker would approach with a degree of respect.

As a result I went to see the English language version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo wondering just how big a hash director David Fincher would make of it.  I couldn’t see Daniel Craig as Blomkvist.  Blomkvist may find himself in the role of action man from time to time but he’s an idealistic softy at heart.  Craig doesn’t make a convincing journalist.  Journalists spend days chained to their computers.  They eat doughnuts and drink coffee.  They don’t have abs.  OK a few have abs but very few journalists are very good journalists and have abs.  There isn’t time.

Rooney Mara on the other hand was a surprise.  I could believe that her Lisbeth Salander had been systematically maltreated.  She managed to capture quite convincingly a combination of low self esteem, fragility and rage.

However my biggest issue was with the directing.  The settings, the cinematography, the degree of fidelity to the original story were all commendable.  I’ll set aside the fact that the film opened with a striking but meaningless pop-video-like CGI sequence set to a godawful cover of Led Zeppelin’s sublime Immigrant Song.

What really bothered me were the sex scenes.  I know that the ubiquity of porn has changed the way sex is shown on screen.  Directors parade more flesh – female flesh of course, no penises – and Rooney Mara’s flesh was put on a float and paraded down Main Street.

That’s widely accepted these days if the sex shown is supposedly between two consenting adults.  But in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo the sex involves someone who has been profoundly traumatised throughout her adolescence and young adulthood.

In the book when Salander slips into Blomkvist’s bed and the two make love it’s an act of considerable trust on her part, while Blomkvist, who one is led to believe is romantically rather cavalier, seems unaware of just how vulnerable Salander is making herself to him and how big a deal that is.  Needless to say Fincher passes on the subtext in favour of straight sex, with the result that it loses much of its emotional power.

If that scene is a missed opportunity then the scene where Salander is manacled to a bed, raped and sodomised by her legal guardian is just plain shameful.

Portraying rape on screen places a huge responsibility on the film-maker.  To eroticise rape is essentially to condone it.  Not only does it ignore the fact that rape is nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power, it also validates the act.

Film-makers who want to show rape for what it is show us faces not bodies.  They allow us to look into the eyes of the victim and see their suffering, their powerlessness and to identify with the emotional impact that sexual violence has on them.

Fincher shows us Mara largely naked, chained face down to a bed.  We never look into her eyes.  We only see her face in profile.  We see her writhing around.

After the attack, when she limps away, we see her from behind, Rooney shuffling so as to underscore the physical impact of anal rape – but again we don’t see her eyes as she processes what has happened to her.  The act is objectified.  We watch.  We aren’t helped to empathise.

Frankly having sat through what seemed to me the eroticisation of the forced and violent sodomy of a much abused woman I felt not a little soiled and complicit for having watched it.

I’m quite surprised that more fuss hasn’t been made about the scene.  It’s all the more shocking because Larsson’s own position seemed pretty clear to me.  The depiction of the rape scene in the book was of an act of violence, not sex.  The incident was about power and domination and we were never allowed to forget what Salander was going through.

Indeed the Swedish title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is “Män Som Hatar Kvinnor”: “Men Who Hate Women.”  At the start of each section of the book is a page blank save for a fact about violence against women in Sweden.

I hope it’s not pushing the point too far to suggest that Larsson was a feminist writer, or at least hoped that was what he was.  (Nick Cohen in the Observer disagrees though as he bases his argument on remarks quoted without proper context it’s hard to know if he has a case).

I can’t help but feel that Fincher’s movie was a betrayal of the book’s core values and that we’ve somehow contrived to overlook the fact that he’s turned an explicit protest against violence against women into a spectacle which we’re expected to secretly enjoy.

If there’s one thing above all about big money entertainment that saddens me it’s its apparent determination to pander to the worst in us rather than to appeal to the best.


DSK and everything that’s wrong with rape trials

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on July 2, 2011 by headstrongclub

There’s never any winner in a rape case.

If the accused is convicted the accuser still has to live with having been violated both by her rapist and by the judicial system.  If the accuser is freed most likely his reputation will have been ruined, a not guilty verdict not having the power to erase every doubt in people’s minds.

Never has this been more apposite than in the Dominique Strauss Kahn rape case.

There was that perp walk – that perversion of the process of law whereby an arrested suspect is paraded in chains.  It’s both pure posturing and an unacceptable attempt to influence the course of any subsequent trial by ccreating an image of the accused that implies guilt.

Now there is the wholesale assault on the reputation of his accuser, a woman from Africa who cleans hotel rooms for a living.

She may indeed be an unreliable witness.  She may be accusing DSK falsely.  We shall never know because frankly even if she has been grotesquely wronged exactly the same attempt to demolish her credibility would take place.

It can only serve to revive the demand that both accused and accuser in rape cases should be anonymous.  It would make the adversarial process in court no less intense more any less brutal, but it would limit the wider damage to those concerned from the case.

There is an argument that by making the accused’s identity public it can bring forward more witnesses.  However that argument could also be made with regard to the alleged victim – that if they’re a serial accuser the publicity would also throw light on their behaviour.

In truth the impact of modern DNA techniques ought to do more to identify serial rapists than victims direct evidence possibly could, and making it less traumatic for women to go to the police directly after a rape would help ensure that such evidence is properly gathered.

Above all however it is surely time for society to accept that rape is far too ghastly an event for it to be treated as tabloid entertainment.  There is every opportunity for the details of the accused to be made public, and the best opportunity is after conviction.