As fresh snow erases the traces of Friday’s scrum of camera crews from the elegant lawns of a Georgian mansion in East Anglia, inside Ellingham Hall Julian Assange is considering his next move.
Transformed from cyber celebrity into household name, Assange – the man who kicked a diplomatic hornet’s nest across the globe – is carrying an extraordinary weight of controversy and opprobrium on his narrow shoulders.
Assange faces a whole new debate this weekend over his personal conduct, after the allegations made by two women in Sweden, who accuse him of sexual misconduct and rape, were published in their fullest form in the Guardian. An increasingly diverse cast of characters are forming unlikely coalitions over the case across ideological divides.
The accounts of the two women have led Stockholm authorities to request the extradition of Assange so that he can be questioned by a prosecutor. That request led to Assange spending nine days on remand in Wandsworth prison – a controversial decision by the courts, which was overturned on Tuesday when he was given £240,000 bail. He was released on Thursday after the high court dismissed an appeal from prosecutors against the bail decision.
A condition of his bail was that he reside at Ellingham Hall, the estate of former British Army officer and journalist Vaughan Smith, who offered bed and board as “an act of principle”.
Dismissed by his supporters as a smear campaign, the case against Assange now threatens to move from a sideshow to overwhelm the main act – the work he has done in his public life as editor of WikiLeaks. In part, Assange, 39, who has become a figurehead for whistleblowers, can blame this on supporters who have pressed accolades on the man rather than the cause, and who range from left wing historians, feminists and human rights campaigners to misogynist right wing bloggers and a porn baron.
Today Larry Flynt, the founder of American sex magazine Hustler, announced that he would give $50,000 (£32,000) to the Assange defence fund, calling him a “hero” who deserved a “ticker-tape parade”. Flynt’s support was not for WikiLeaks itself, but because he thought the rape charges a nonsense.
Assange has been called “the new Jason Bourne” by Jemima Khan, the “Ned Kelly of the Cyber Age” by members of the press in his native Australia and a libertine 007 by those who note his fondness for martinis.
On the other side, Republican US senators have lined up behind the Democrat secretary of state Hillary Clinton to condemn him. Sarah Palin claims that he is “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands” that America should pursue “with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaida and Taliban leaders.” George Packer of the New Yorker magazine, called Assange “megalomaniacal” and Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens called him “a middle man and peddler who resents the civilisation that nurtured him”. There have been disturbing calls from both Republicans and Democrats for him to be assassinated.
Smith agreed there was a “risk” of the allegations against Assange overshadowing WikiLeaks’ revelations. “When a friend of mine looks me in the eye and tells me they are not guilty I tend to believe them,” he said. “One has to remember that conviction rates are amazingly low, and I suppose if one had to stand back away from this – and I say this without trying to diminish claims of any form of crime of this nature – but if one takes enough distance one might observe that perhaps it is something of a distraction,” he told the Observer. “When, as I believe, he is determined to be innocent one might look on this and ask: was this in the interests of it all?”
But after Assange’s period in jail last week, the focus was switching. In today’s Guardian editorial, the newspaper explained why it had chosen to publish the sexual misconduct allegations in detail: “It is unusual for a sex-offence case to be presented outside of the judicial process in such a manner, but then it is unheard of for a defendant, his legal team and supporters to so vehemently and publicly attack women at the heart of a rape case.”
The paper is reflecting a growing discomfort among many, in both camps, at the widespread vilification – and naming – of the two alleged victims on websites and blogs, and also of the kind of language being used by people including Assange’s own lawyer Mark Stephens who referred to the allegation as a “honeytrap” .
“I have never heard the like. Legal representatives do not and should not stand on the steps outside a court of law and make such comments about their clients, it is neither right nor fitting,” said one outraged barrister. “It is certainly in my view deeply unprofessional.”
It’s understood that several high- profile Assange supporters have been shown what they understand to be translations of texts and emails to help persuade them Assange is not guilty of rape.
Human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger has directed her Twitter followers to a blog suggesting that one of the women had links to an anti-Castro Cuban group. She insisted to the Observer that she had been in court and taken great care over her analysis of the charges, and believed in Assange’s innocence. Michael Moore, the US film-maker, has suggested Sweden does not always pursue rape allegations. He has offered money towards the bail surety. Others have been suggesting that Assange has fallen foul to a pact between jealous female groupies. A range of deeply misogynistic blog posts have blamed “feminists”, despite insistence from people close to Assange that there is no conspiracy.
A new campaign called “talkaboutit” has been started online by Swedish women to defend the accusers from the extraordinary verbal attacks being made after Johanna Palmstom, of the Swedish thinktank Lacrimosa, wrote passionately this week in favour of justice being seen to take its course. But many young activists in the UK see a conspiracy with the power of the US at its heart.
Jim Cranshaw, 29, a campaigner with the UK Uncuts movement said that a commonly held view among young activists was that the allegations against Assange amounted to a witchhunt by the US. “The majority of my peers are deeply sceptical about the whole process. He is wanted by the most powerful country in the world and the timing of the allegations, the extradition attempts, it all seems too convenient.
John Pilger writes in the Independent that the entire process is flawed:
I don’t regard the Guardian article as revelatory but as more of what we know, plus scuttlebut. There are serious omissions. The impression is given that Julian Assange refused to attend a meeting with the Swedish director of prosecutions on 14 October. This is false. Assange offered to attend on the 15th and 16th. When these days weren’t suitable, he offered a complete week instead.
What happened in Sweden was a public smear, and trial by Swedish tabloid media. The chief prosecutor, Eva Fine, understood this. After making her own inquiries, she cancelled the arrest warrant. “Julian Assange is not suspected of rape,” she said. It was only the intervention of a leading political figure, Claes Borgstrom, that reactivated the case.