Sweden's case against WikiLeaks' Julian Assange

In an interview with CNET, the Swedish attorney for two women who accuse Julian Assange of sexual misconduct lays out the case against WikiLeaks editor.

Julian Assange, in England on December 17, the day after being released on bail. by Jonathan Skillings, CNET

An attorney for the two Swedish women who accuse WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of sexual assault rejected any "conspiracy theories" surrounding the allegations, lodged a month after the embattled Web site began publishing thousands of classified U.S. government documents.

In an interview with CNET, attorney Claes Borgström said, "I'm getting e-mails where people ask me how much the U.S. administration pays me to pursue this case."

He denies any connection, emphasizing that his clients are two ordinary Swedish women who have no motive to interfere with WikiLeaks document-sharing activities, which have increasingly irked the U.S. government. "In fact, both my clients are supporters of WikiLeaks," he said.

If Assange is brought to Sweden to face charges, Borgström estimates that prosecutors will decide in February or March whether to pursue the case.

Assange is trying to fend off a deportation request from the Swedish government; a judge in London granted him bail last week under relatively strict conditions, including a requirement that he stay at a country manor owned by a supporter until a hearing on January 11. The U.K.'s Guardian newspaper last week published details of the charges from a leaked police document that quotes one of the women as saying that "not only had it been the world's worst screw, it had also been violent."

"I believe that what surprises people in other countries is that if a man and a woman initiate sexual intercourse, and she after awhile doesn't want to continue, that can be considered rape," Borgström said.

An unusual aspect of Swedish sexual assault law, an outlier even in European countries, has contributed to the case against Assange, said legal experts interviewed by CNET. That's because more situations can be charged as rape instead of the less serious crimes of molestation or exploitation.

"We have a rape concept which is wider than in many other countries," said Petter Asp, professor of criminal law at the University of Stockholm. "As an example, acts against a sleeping person are considered rape if they fulfill certain criteria. Violence is not necessary." (The general term is known as "helpless condition," also referring to when the victim is drunk.)

One of the Swedish women reportedly alleges that she woke up to find Assange, whom she had previously agreed to have sex with, penetrating her without a condom against her explicit wishes.

"Possibly the knowledge among people in Sweden on what is allowed and what is not allowed in this area is higher than in many other countries," said Borgström.

Borgström should know. He was the Swedish ombudsman for Equal Opportunities from 2000 to 2007 and afterward the spokesperson for the Social Democrats on this topic (and is at a law firm that counts the former minister of justice Thomas Bodström as one of the partners).

The reason for the Swedes' acute sensitivity over what might be translated as "sexual integrity" can be found in history. One key episode was when a group of senior jurists in the 1970s, inspired by the sexual emancipation of that era, proposed a loosening of the law that would have shifted more responsibility to the victim.

"There was a tremendously strong reaction from women's organizations," said Kjell Östberg, professor in history at Södertörn University.

Östberg said that one significant point--that also makes Sweden unusual--is that in matters like the 1970s dispute and women's rights in general, women's organizations from across the political spectrum join forces and have done so since the fight over female suffrage a century ago.

"Even for prominent and independent opinion leaders I believe it would be difficult in this situation to say anything other than, 'Why shouldn't this accusation be heard as all other accusations?'" Östberg said.

In an interview with NBC News on Friday, Assange strenuously denied the allegations made by the Swedish women.

"It is an incredible allegation of rape," he said. "And in the beginning, double rape, reported around the world...But I think its days are numbered and people are starting to wonder, is what is claimed really true and if it is true, where is the evidence? Why has no evidence been provided even to me and my defense attorneys?"

He said he initially tried to clear his name with prosecutors and over the summer he "received permission to leave the country for my work and did so." Swedish prosecutors initially dropped the charges but then reinstated them. The U.S. State Department denied any involvement.