Open Letter re: Julian Assange Event / Festival of Debate

CN discussion of rape, rape apologism

We were troubled to find out about an event at the Sheffield Students’ Union hosting Julian Assange, which is being held as part of the Festival Of Debate (FoD). ( /

Julian Assange continues to evade allegations of rape, unlawful coercion and molestation in Sweden. While prosecutors have now dropped their investigation into one accusation of sexual molestation and one of unlawful coercion because they ran out of time to question him, one outstanding allegation of rape is not due to expire until 2020. Assange has been hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy to resist arrest and extradition for trial since June 2012 – a timeline of the events surrounding the allegations can be found here. The UN arbitrary detention working group voted in February that Julian Assange is in ‘arbitrary detention’. This ruling has attracted outrage and is currently being challenged by the UK, with a decision on this appeal due soon.

The FoD event takes the form of an ‘in conversation / Q&A’-style discussion via video link, but it fails to recognise or explain the reasons for the video link – his choosing to take ‘political asylum’ in the Ecuadorian Embassy. The event description lauds Assange for the work he has done with Wikileaks, with absolutely no suggestion that the event will have a critical element. We believe Assange should not be offered opportunities to act as an authority on political issues without discussion of the rape allegations that so blatantly frame the manner in which the ‘debate’ is being held. The allegations must be central to the debate and cannot and must not be ignored or minimised by simplistically celebrating Assange.

We are angered that this is yet another public opportunity for Assange to evade accountability using his position of power. By overlooking these allegations entirely, the FoD event implicitly contributes to the silencing of rape and sexual assault survivors. It also lends credence to an overestimation of false rape allegations and the societal myth that women ‘cry rape’ with malicious intent. We believe that it is not a contradiction to recognise the work done to bring state surveillance to public attention (e.g. Wikileaks and anti-state whistleblowers, such as Ed Snowden and Chelsea Manning) whilst also prioritising the accounts of people who have survived sexual violence over those who have perpetrated it, and holding those who cause harm accountable. We are also concerned that this narrative plays into the over-simplification that anyone who does not stand with Assange must stand with the states and oppressive structures that would see him imprisoned. Women’s bodies and issues have long been mobilised by states to justify imperialist invasions and expansions of the prison industrial complex. We refuse to allow this to happen without the voices, needs and experiences of women who have experienced gendered violence. Instead we push for more open debates and discussions about sexual violence, possibilities of transformative justice and what constitutes meaningful social change for survivors.

LaDIYfest has previously collaborated with FoD and attended many of their events and believe that it has been a really positive thing for the city. While we realise that the festival’s focus on debate means that we should not expect to necessarily like or agree with every event, we feel that any ‘controversy’ in this case lies with the allegations of sexual violence perpetrated by Assange, rather than his work as a whistleblower and hence these must be addressed.

There is a persistent problem of acknowledging and responding to sexual violence in activist groups and communities on the Left. Sheffield Students’ Union and Festival of Debate have a responsibility to take a stance against rape culture.

We contacted Opus, the team behind the FoD, and met with two representatives to discuss our concerns. Those of us who attended the meeting found this a very difficult discussion.  One of the FoD organisers repeatedly defended Assange, claimed that it was ‘highly unlikely’ the allegations against him are true, painted Assange as the victim of these allegations, and showed a definite lack of understanding of the arguments we made and awareness of the information available.

FoD have invited LaDIYfest to submit a question for Kerry-Anne Mendoza, the interviewer, to pose to Assange. However, we feel that the question could be used by Assange and his team to reinforce his position and attempt to regain credibility. We believe one question at the end of a long conversation with Assange still minimises the importance of the allegations. We are also aware that on previous occasions, Assange was reported to have given dismissive and sarcastic responses to questions on these issues, and in some cases ‘repeatedly refused to answer questions’ altogether. Therefore, we have decided it will be in our best interests to remain uninvolved in the actual event.

While we are not organising anything specific ourselves, we want to create awareness and build solidarity around the issues we have discussed in this blog post. We want a critical response to this event, whether in the form of protest, petition, further co-signatures to this statement, or something else entirely. We also want those involved in organising FoD to recognise their responsibility not to perpetuate rape culture, and to take the concerns of those who have legitimate reservations about the political implications of their actions seriously. While we appreciate that FoD met with us to discuss the issues involved, the tone taken by some members of the organisation, along with the inaccurate implication that the activists involved had not done enough research, does not contribute to an amicable and frank exchange of views, or a ‘Festival of Debate’. Due to all the reasons covered in this statement, we will not be working with FoD, or associated organisations, until they have fully recognised our concerns. We urge you to do the same: if you are in agreement with us please get involved and help us show FoD that debate happens on the streets as well as in controlled environments!

LaDIYfest Sheffield

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One Response to Open Letter re: Julian Assange Event / Festival of Debate

  1. Nick says:

    Do you not question why Swedish prosecutors repeatedly refused to conduct questioning in the UK with Assange to move the case forward? They have only recently said they would do that and still waiting.

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