08.21.10

Rape Charge Dropped for WikiLeaks Founder

WikiLeakers founder Julian Assange has been cleared of initial rape charges, though molestation allegations remain. Philip Shenon talks to one of his supporters about what Assange has told them.

Prosecutors in Sweden have withdrawn their warrant for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, calling the rape charges against him unfounded. Still, a separate allegation of molestation remains. Philip Shenon talks to Assange's supporters about his reaction to the charges.

Swedish prosecutors dropped rape allegations Saturday against the elusive founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, only hours after they issued an arrest warrant for him on the charges.

The prosecutors said on their website that the rape charges, which seemed to threaten the very existence of WikiLeaks given Assange’s central role in the whistleblowing website, were being dropped for lack of evidence.

“I want to believe this is some sort of trick against Julian,” said one of Assange’s closest supporters in Europe.

At the same time, the prosecutors seemed to leave open the possibility that Assange was under investigation for other crimes in Sweden, a nation that had seemed on the verge a few days ago of becoming a new, permanent home for WikiLeaks. Assange had been in Sweden earlier this week.

Assange’s supporters struggled Saturday to track him down and ask him how he planned to defend himself against the rape and molestation charges that were first reported in a Swedish tabloid newspaper.

Assange, who leads a nomadic existence, mostly living in the homes of friends and supporters in several countries, communicates directly with news organizations and the public through the social-networking site Twitter, and he took to Twitter Saturday to defend himself.

Without revealing his whereabouts, he described the rape and molestations allegations as a “dirty trick.” The charges, he said, are “without basis and their issue at this moment is deeply disturbing.” He added: “Needless to say, this will prove hugely distracting.” Before the rape charges were dropped, one of Assange’s closest supporters in Europe told The Daly Beast “I want to believe this is some sort of trick against Julian.”

The supporter, clearly alarmed by the allegations, said he unwilling to allow his name to be used because “if this is a trick, I don’t want to be the next target.” He said that Assange had assured supporters this morning the rape allegations were “absolutely untrue” and might be part of a larger effort by the United States and other Western nations to smear Assange and WikiLeaks as the site prepared to release another huge library of classified Pentagon documents.

He said he was unable to determine Assange’s exact whereabouts on Saturday, “which is not unusual – as you know, Julian has very good reasons to move around secretly.”

Assange, a 39-year-old former computer hacker from Australia, had been in Sweden as recently as last Wednesday to solidify ties with news organizations and government officials there in hopes of establishing a new base for WikiLeaks in Stockholm, the Swedish capital. Sweden has some of the world’s strongest press-freedom laws and could offer WikiLeaks protection from angry law-enforcement agencies in the United States and elsewhere. According to news organizations in Sweden, local prosecutors filed charges Friday night alleging that Assange was suspected of rape and molestation in cases involving two local women, and that he had been asked to turn himself in to the police. Few other details of the allegations were revealed. The Associated Press quoted a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office as saying that Assange “should contact police so that he can be confronted with the suspicions.”

The bizarre sequence of events will likely bring new attention to Assange’s troubled family and personal life, including a brutal child-custody fight several years ago in Australia between Assange and the mother of his young son. The fight was so vicious that Assange’s friends blame it for turning Assange’s hair white. He became so depressed that he was reportedly hospitalized.

Assange has announced plans later this summer to release another batch of leaked classified reports from the Pentagon, reportedly involving the American war in Afghanistan. In July, WikiLeaks posted an estimated 72,000 documents from the same library, withholding 15,000 reports others because, Assange said, they needed to be more closely vetted for “security reasons.” He said last week in Sweden that WikiLeaks was making progress in preparing the other 15,000 for release, which was expected to happen later this summer.

Sweden had seemed a natural home for WikiLeaks and for Assange, given the protection offered there to news organizations and individual journalists, who are shielded under law from identifying their sources. Over likely American protests, the Swedish government had appeared willing, even eager, in recent days to welcome WikiLeaks to set up shop in Stockholm. Assange signed a contract last week to become a columnist for the popular Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, giving him standing as a Swedish journalist – and therefore offered protection under the country’s press laws.

“It’s no coincidence that I’m going to be writing for a Swedish paper,” Assange said last week. ”The Swedish culture and Swedish law have supported us from the beginning.”

Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.