Special Report: STD fears sparked case against WikiLeaks boss
Tue Dec 7, 2010 4:27pm EST
By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) The two Swedish women who accuse WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of sexual misconduct were at first not seeking to bring charges against him. They just wanted to track him down and persuade him to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases, according to several people in contact with his entourage at the time.
The women went to the police together after they failed to persuade Assange to go to a doctor after separate sexual encounters with him in August, according to these people, who include former close associates of Assange who have since fallen out with him.
The women had trouble finding Assange because he had turned off his cellphone out of concern his enemies might trace him, these sources said.
Assange, who was arrested and held in custody by a British court Tuesday, has both admirers and detractors. His WikiLeaks group publishes secret documents from governments and companies, most recently making public a vast trove of U.S. State Department cables between Washington and embassies abroad that have cast a revealing and sometimes embarrassing eye on the inner workings of U.S. diplomacy.
Assange's elusiveness may have worked against him in the Swedish investigation, which might well have gone nowhere had he taken the women's calls and not left Sweden when police started looking into the allegations.
The Swedish investigation has undergone head-spinning twists and turns. After initially issuing a warrant for Assange's arrest on rape and molestation charges in mid-August, a Swedish prosecutor dropped the rape charge the next day. After this U-turn, it appeared likely that the whole investigation of the 39-year-old Australian computer hacker would be abandoned.
Assange's accusers then hired a lawyer who declared he would press prosecutors not only to keep the investigation going but to reinstate rape charges. The case was soon transferred to one of Sweden's three Directors of Public Prosecutions, Marianne Ny, who indeed decided to reinstate the rape investigation and continue the molestation probe. She ordered that Assange should be subject to official interrogation about the allegations.
After Assange left the country, Swedish authorities issued a European arrest warrant under which Assange could be detained and returned to Sweden. A spokeswoman for Swedish prosecutors affirmed, however, that at the moment Assange is not formally charged in Sweden with any criminal offense, but is only wanted for questioning.
The most serious accusation Swedish prosecutors made against him in a statement on their website is that he committed "rape, less serious crime" -- the least serious of three levels of rape charges that are on the statute books in Sweden. Conviction carries a maximum four year jail sentence and a minimum of less than two years, depending upon the circumstances.
As described by several people who were in contact with Assange and his inner circle at the time the allegations against him surfaced, both of his accusers are young Swedish women who came into contact with him during a visit to Sweden on behalf of WikiLeaks.
One of the women, identified in the British court hearing on Sweden's extradition request as Miss A, was listed on publicity for Assange's Swedish visit as a spokesperson for a group hosting the WikiLeaks leader.
People who were in contact with both Assange and other members of his entourage at the time say that the woman at some point invited him to stay at her residence.
Assange's financial resources are opaque, but by most accounts he maintains an austere lifestyle, supporting himself on the donations of wealthy and not-so-rich supporters and overnighting in a succession of friends' spare rooms.
According to the accounts of Assange's associates, his overnight stays at his erstwhile spokeswoman's residence soon evolved into a sexual relationship between the two. During one of their encounters, the woman later said, a condom Assange was wearing broke or split.
People who saw Assange and the woman in the days after this incident is said to have occurred said the two displayed little if any obvious sign of tension or hostility; to some who saw them at the time, it was not clear their relationship was anything other than amicable and chaste.
A few days later, however, people who were in contact with Assange then told Reuters, a second, younger woman went to a seminar addressed by Assange.
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According to an account published by London's Daily Mail -- which said it had access to heavily redacted versions of the statements both women made to Swedish police -- the second woman had become obsessed by Assange after watching him on television. After hearing him speak at the seminar, the newspaper said, the woman, identified in court as Miss W, loitered outside the meeting hall, and eventually was invited to lunch with Assange and his entourage at a local bistro.
A day after their initial meeting -- which the Mail account said included a visit to a natural history museum -- Miss W agreed with Assange that he should spend the night at her apartment about 45 minutes outside Stockholm. The paper says she had to pay for his $15 train ticket because he had no cash and didn't want to use a credit card in case it would help authorities locate him.
That night, according to the accounts of both the newspaper and people who were in contact with Assange and his inner circle, he and Miss W had sex using a condom.
The next morning, however, under circumstances which remain deeply murky, the sources said, Assange allegedly had sex with the woman again, this time without a condom. Then, after a meal during which the Mail says that the woman joked that she could be pregnant, they parted on friendly terms, with Miss W buying Assange his train ticket back to Stockholm.
Two people who were in contact with Assange's entourage before, during and after these events said that while some details are still unclear, it appears that after parting from Assange, Miss W became increasingly concerned that he might have given her a sexually-transmitted disease.
According to the sources, Miss W anxiously tried to phone Assange to plead with him to go to a doctor and be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. However, the sources said that Assange had turned his phone off, leaving Miss W no way to get in touch with him.
Becoming increasingly anxious about possible dire consequences of having had sex without a condom, Miss W then began trying to contact Assange through various people she believed were in touch with him.
This eventually led her to Miss A -- who according to people who followed the case closely was not previously acquainted with Miss W.
The two women proceeded to compare notes on their encounters with Assange and decided that they would insist that he should go to a hospital or doctor and submit to testing for sexually-transmitted diseases. Eventually they managed to get in touch with Assange, according to a person who closely followed the case at the time.
But by the time the women had wrung this concession from Assange, the source said, it was a Friday evening and hospitals and medical clinics were closed.
At this point, Miss W, apparently exasperated at Assange's evasive behavior, decided to take her story to police, though initially she didn't want Assange to be prosecuted.
According to a version of the story published by London's Guardian newspaper, which has been in close and continuing contact with Assange for months, Miss A decided to go to the police with Miss W to offer moral support, but did not want charges brought against Assange either.
After taking statements from the women, according to both published accounts and to accounts confirmed by Swedish officials at the time, police officers passed the reports on to prosecutors. Based on the reports a prosecutor serving after-hours duty on a Friday night then decided to issue a warrant for Assange's arrest on suspicion of rape -- a charge which the Guardian said at the time was related to Assange's alleged encounter with Miss W.
The next morning, however, the file was sent for review to a more senior prosecutor, who concluded there was insufficient evidence to support the rape accusation and canceled the arrest warrant. But the second prosecutor decided that the investigation should continue as a lesser accusation of "molestation" against Assange, Swedish officials said at the time.
Over the following several days, prosecutors spoke about wanting to question Assange, though also dropped heavy hints that they wanted to wrap up their investigation rapidly -- with the most likely outcome being a closing of the file.
However, new life was injected into the investigation after Miss A and Miss W hired Claes Borgstrom, a prominent Swedish lawyer. Borgstrom confirmed to reporters at the time that his clients' allegations against Assange related to efforts he made to have sex with them without wearing condoms, and his subsequent reluctance to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
Borgstrom said at the time that he would appeal the authorities' initial decision to close the rape investigation to a higher authority. Subsequently, Marianne Ny, one of three senior Swedish prosecutors who hold the title of Director of Public Prosecutions, issued a statement about the case, which, in an official translation published on the English language page of the Swedish Prosecution Authority's website, declared that: "There is reason to believe that a crime has been committed. Considering information available at present, my judgment is that the classification of the crime is rape."
In their official statement, prosecutors added that the original "molestation" investigation of Assange -- which was never officially closed -- also would continue and "will be extended to include all allegations in the original police report... There is reason to believe that a crime has been committed. Based on the information available, the crimes in question come under the heading of sexual coercion and sexual molestation, respectively."
In a flurry of statements and Twitter messages after the case first erupted, Assange and WikiLeaks charged that the whole Swedish case was the product of some kind of "dirty tricks campaign" related to the group's work. In one Tweet, WikiLeaks said that "The charges are without basis and their issue at the moment is deeply disturbing." Another Tweet said: "We were warned to expect 'dirty tricks'. Now we have the first one."
Assange kept to this theme in subsequent statements to the media. "I know by experience that WikiLeaks' enemies will continue to bandy around things even after they have been renounced. I don't know who's behind this but we have been warned that, for example, the Pentagon plans to use dirty tricks to spoil things for us."
But Assange was also quoted saying that he had "never, whether in Sweden or in any other country, had sex with anyone in a way that is not founded on mutual consent."
The Swedish prosecutor, Ny, said Tuesday the case was a personal matter and not connected with his work releasing secret U.S. diplomatic cables. "I want to make it clear that I have not been put under any kind of pressure, political or otherwise," Ny said in a statement.
Tuesday, a lawyer representing the Swedish government laid out for a British judge four specific charges of sexual misconduct, three related to Miss A and one related to Miss W. The word "rape" was not part of the charges but "unlawful coercion" and Assange's alleged reluctance to use condoms was.
Assange understood in August that Swedish authorities were seeking to question him about sexual misconduct charges, but the WikiLeaks founder left the country anyway, fearing a "media circus," according to someone who spoke with him at the time.
By bolting Sweden without appearing for interrogation, however, Assange forced the Swedes and British to launch an international legal effort that has created precisely the kind of media extravaganza he hoped to avoid.
(Additional reporting by Peter Griffiths and Michael Holden in London; Editing by Jim Impoco and Claudia Parsons)