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Assange rape case spotlights Sweden's liberal laws

A starry-eyed admirer was flattered to be invited to dinner with a man she considered a champion of free speech. Another woman supported the cause by lending her apartment to the same man, then returned early from her trip.

Both encounters resulted in sex. Now, after unleashing an unprecedented trove of U.S. government secrets, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is behind bars to answer questions about whether his conduct amounted to rape under Sweden's unusually broad definition.

Sweden prides itself on gender equality and fairness, a tradition underpinning an interpretation of rape that often requires only a low level of coercion. A minor threat or force, such as pulling an arm, can be enough to result in charges. Sex with a person who is unconscious, drunk or asleep can be classed as rape.

Between heavily redacted Swedish police reports and details revealed Tuesday in a British court, a picture is emerging in which flirtation led to sex before the WikiLeaks founder allegedly crossed the line by refusing to use a condom and by having unprotected sex while a woman was asleep. The women's names are redacted in the court documents, and The Associated Press does not normally identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

Assange denies his actions amounted to rape, and his lawyers call the charges politically motivated. Under police questioning in Sweden on Aug. 30 about one of the accusations, the 39-year-old Australian confirmed the general outlines of the woman's story but appeared in the heavily redacted transcript to insist that all of the sexual contact was consensual.

One of the women said in her statement to police that she was obsessed with meeting the tall, wiry man she had come to see as a hero of free speech — "interesting, brave and admirable."

For two weeks after seeing an Assange TV interview, the 27-year-old woman devoured news reports about him. Then one night, she Googled his name and learned he was giving a lecture in Sweden on Aug. 14.

The woman contacted the organizers and offered to do chores if she were allowed to attend. She turned up in a bright pink sweater and sat in the front row — looking out of place amid a sea of journalists in somber suits. The ice was broken when she agreed to buy a cable for Assange's computer.

She was invited to a post-lecture dinner, she said, and seated next to Assange. They flirted, she told police: At one point Assange hand-fed her cheese and bread. The police report says she found it "flattering."

She and Assange went to the movies, where she said they kissed. Two days later she brought him home.

But by then, she told police, "the passion and excitement had disappeared."

On the train ride to her place, she said, Assange logged on to his computer and started reading about himself on Twitter. "He paid more attention to the computer than to her," the report said.

They got to her apartment at midnight — and what happened next "felt very dull and boring," she told police. She later alleged, according to a British lawyer, that Assange pinned her down and refused to wear a condom.

The other woman's tale also emerges as one of casual, uninspired intimacy.

The 31-year-old, a feminist scholar who was working for the organization that hosted Assange's Aug. 14 lecture, let him use her apartment while she was away on a trip. But she returned early, on the eve of his lecture, and the two agreed he could stay.

That night, they went out for dinner, returned to her place for tea, and, she said, became intimate. Later, in the middle of the night, she claimed in the police report, Assange sexually molested her. In a London court Tuesday, a lawyer accused Assange of having unprotected sex with the woman while she was asleep.

Afterward, he stayed in the apartment for nearly a week.

During that time, the first woman tried unsuccessfully to reach Assange and, on Aug. 20, tracked down the apartment where he was staying. The two women got to talking.

After swapping Assange stories, they jointly contacted police — and filed rape complaints.

Complicating the case is a vibrant discussion on the Internet. One of the accusers wrote a blog post in January — months before she filed her complaint with police — offering seven tips on punishing a "cheating lover."

Assange has denied the allegations in both cases and is fighting extradition to Sweden for further questioning. His British lawyer has said the suspicions stem from a "dispute over consensual, but unprotected sex." While unprotected sex cannot in itself be interpreted as rape in Sweden, sexual intercourse with a person who is asleep is considered nonconsensual.

Assange's Swedish lawyer, Bjorn Hurtig, claims the courts are stacked against defendants in sex cases and Assange essentially has to prove he is innocent. "Just entering a courtroom with the crime description rape means you are down 3-0 in the first half," he says.

However, despite having the highest rate of reported sex offenses among 24 European countries — 47 per 100,000 citizens — Sweden sees only 10 percent of those cases lead to convictions, a 2009 European Commission-funded study found.

Eva Diesen, a lawyer and researcher at Stockholm University, said the low conviction rate is in part due to a lack of material evidence, and that's the case with Assange.

Since the complaints were filed in August, three prosecutors overruled one another on whether to open an investigation. Such murky legal waters are the norm for sex-crime investigations in Sweden, Diesen said.

"Some prosecutors are very cautious and prefer not to do anything they are uncertain of, while other prosecutors choose to do something because they feel it is important to pursue a case and trust more details will emerge," she said.

Several high-profile cases in recent years have led to debate within Sweden about the country's unusual laws.

In 2007, Swedes protested after a court acquitted two men known in the Stockholm club scene of raping a 19-year-old woman. Despite her injuries, the court said it couldn't prove rape because she had previously been involved in violent sex games with the men. An appeals court overturned the ruling, saying text messages between the men proved they lied about what happened.

In 2008, Chilean-born tenor Tito Beltran was sentenced to two years in prison for raping an 18-year-old woman during a tour, a case that attracted attention not only because of his celebrity but also because the verdict relied heavily on the woman's account. The court said witnesses who spoke to the woman after the event supported her claim.

Last month, a government-sponsored report on violent crimes against women criticized police for not doing enough to gather physical evidence of rape. Another review urged even stricter rape legislation, suggesting all sexual acts that take place without both parties' express consent should be criminalized, even if there is no violence.

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Cassandra Vinograd contributed to this report from London.