Behind Assange's Arrest: Sweden's Sex-Crime Problem

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Peter Macdiarmid / Pool / AP

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange waves legal papers as he leaves Britain's High Court Thursday Dec. 16, 2010 in London, England.

Foreign visitors to Stockholm's lively bar scene might be struck by the assertiveness of the nation's women — the typical Swedish female seems to have no qualms about approaching men to start a conversation or initiate a romantic encounter. To Swedish feminists, that confidence is just one part of the country's wider effort to promote women's rights. "The whole society now expects women to be as forward with their sexual will as men. That, after all, is part of achieving gender equality," explains Karine Arakelian, chairwoman of Terrafem, a shelter organization for abused women.

But despite having the freedom to dictate their sexual encounters, Swedish women face a troubling fact: Sweden has by far the highest incidence of reported rapes in Europe, and one of the lowest conviction rates in the developed world. Various international bodies — from the U.N. to Amnesty International — have slammed the country for the prevalence of sex crimes committed by its citizens. In response, the Swedish government has in recent years undertaken aggressive measures to toughen up its sex-crime laws.

And it's in this context that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, currently under police watch in London, finds himself awaiting possible extradition to Sweden to face questioning related to five different sex-crime allegations. The claims, which include rape, stem from sexual encounters Assange had with two women in August that began as consensual but, according to his accusers, became nonconsensual. Assange and his attorneys have claimed that Sweden's public prosecutor is pursuing the former hacker at the behest of the U.S. government, as retribution for the embarrassing diplomatic cables published recently by WikiLeaks. But it's much more likely that political pressure of a different sort has landed Assange under police watch: Sweden's campaign to aggressively pursue all accusations of sex crimes.

On Thursday, a British judge released Assange on conditional bail. Assange had been granted bail on Tuesday but spent the next two days in prison while Swedish prosecutors appealed the decision. Assange has not been charged with a crime, and he denies any wrongdoing. But his arrest is another piece of Sweden's internal dialogue about how the country can counter its sex-crime crisis.

Each year, Sweden records 46 cases of reported rape per 100,000 people, roughly twice the rate in the U.S. or the U.K. Yet the conviction rate is a measly 10%, one of the lowest in the developed world. And the problem seems to be getting worse: the rate of reported sex crimes has increased by 60% in the past decade, according to government statistics. Some commentators suggest that the high rates of reported rape could, paradoxically, be a sign of Sweden's success in promoting gender equality, as women who have a greater awareness of their rights are more likely to speak out if those rights are violated. "Rape is not more common in Sweden [than elsewhere]," says Karin Sandell of Uppsala University's National Centre for Knowledge of Men's Violence Against Women, echoing a sentiment expressed by many Swedish rape experts. "It's just that Swedish women are more empowered to report it to police."

But no one knows that for sure. Some observers worry that there is a subterranean current of sexual violence running beneath Sweden's seemingly placid public image. (Swedish crime fiction, for example, is famous for its lurid descriptions of sexual violence — the literal translation of the Swedish title for the first book in Stieg Larsson's popular Millennium trilogy is Men Who Hate Women.) In a report in 2007, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on violence against women wrote, "While the equal opportunity agenda has paved the way for significant advances in the public representation of women ... the Swedish experience is less effective in countering the unequal power relations between women and men in the private sphere, thus resulting in the normalization of violence." Indeed, it's not just police reports that paint a troubling picture. A government survey in 2001 found that almost half of the women who responded said they had been the victim of a violent or sexual assault by a man since their 15th birthday.

Concerned particularly about the low rates of conviction following rape reports, the government launched a three-year program in 2007 designed to educate elements in the criminal-justice system on how to more aggressively pursue rape claims, since victims often drop their charges out of fear, shame or loyalty to the accused. And in 1998 and 2005, the definition of rape in Sweden was broadened to include, for instance, forcing sex through the threat of violence and having sex with a sleeping or unconscious woman.

It is under this wider definition of the word that police wish to question Assange. Police reports state that the allegations against Assange center around claims by two Swedish women who say that on separate occasions each had consented to have sex with Assange, but that sometime during or after the encounter, he engaged in sexual behavior against their will. According to the Swedish branch of Interpol, a recent arrest warrant for Assange states that the rape accusation stems from a sexual encounter in which the woman "was asleep and in a helpless state." There is also a sexual-molestation allegation based on claims that in a different incident, "the pair [were] sleeping naked together and the suspect [pushed] his naked erect penis into her body." And prosecutors also want to question Assange in relation to the suspicion that he sexually coerced one of the women by "lying on top of [her], using his weight to prevent her from moving, and forcefully spreading her legs," and that he sexually molested both women by "having sex without the use of a condom, without the woman's knowledge."

No one could have predicted that Assange would become one of Sweden's most wanted when he traveled to the country in August to hold a series of lectures on WikiLeaks and received a rapturous welcome. According to Thomas Mattsson, editor of the Swedish daily Expressen, the nation's affinity for Assange came naturally: Swedes share his love of technology and his belief in open government. But Mattsson says Swedes have another passion that is equally important. "We are very moral in terms of how well-known and powerful men may behave with women in all kinds of situations, romantically or professionally," he says.

And for the Swedes who are grappling with the disturbingly high rates of sexual crimes against women, when it comes to nonconsensual sex, what happens behind closed doors should never remain a secret. If anyone can understand that compulsion to expose injustice, it's Assange.