George Galloway has refused to retract his comments that the sexual offences allegedly committed by Julian Assange amounted to no more than bad "sexual etiquette" – despite the leader of his own party condemning them as "deeply disappointing and wrong".
When the Respect MP issued a statement yesterday afternoon, it was expected that he would use the opportunity to clarify his controversial claims about the WikiLeaks founder. But instead of addressing them directly, he insisted that Mr Assange was the target of a "set up" by the US, British and Swedish governments.
"No never means yes and non-consensual sex is rape. Julian Assange, let's be clear, has always denied the allegations. And this has all the hallmarks of a set-up," the statement read. Suggesting the US and UK authorities should promise not to organise the onward extradition of Mr Assange while he was in Sweden, he added: "What is preventing the two governments doing this? I think we know."
Mr Assange faces the prospect of being charged with four separate offences in Sweden. In his initial extradition hearing, the Magistrate asserted that the first three allegations would – if proven – constitute offences under the British Sexual Offences Act; and that the fourth would constitute rape.
However, Mr Galloway insisted: "What occurred is not rape as most people understand it. And it's important to note that the two women involved did not initially claim it."
Salma Yaqoob, the leader of the Respect party, said the MP's original comments had been "deeply disappointing and wrong".
In a posting on her own website, she said the "political issues" surrounding Mr Assange's case should not be used to diminish the seriousness of the accusations against him. "Let me be clear, as a politician and as a woman. Rape occurs when a woman has not consented to sex," she added.
In his statement, Mr Galloway, who is in Indonesia, said Mr Assange has repeatedly made clear that he is prepared to return to Sweden to face questioning if he receives a guarantee that he would not be extradited to the US to face charges over the leak of US diplomatic cables.
But yesterday the US State Department accused the WikiLeaks founder of spreading "wild assertions" and insisted that the extradition saga, now centred on Ecuador's embassy in London, is nothing to do with them.
Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland criticised Mr Assange for what she said was an attempt to deflect attention from the sex charges he faces in Sweden. Her outburst came as Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who has granted the WikiLeaks founder asylum, said it would be "suicidal" for UK authorities to attempt to arrest him in the embassy.
The American government, however, sought to distance itself from the issue. At a press briefing, Ms Nuland said: "He is making all kinds of wild assertions about us. He is clearly trying to deflect attention away from the real issue, which is whether he's going to face justice in Sweden, which is the immediate issue. So that case has nothing to do with us. It's a matter between the UK, Sweden, and now Ecuador has inserted itself."
Meanwhile, the computer hacking collective Anonymous claimed yesterday that it had attacked Government websites in retaliation for Britain's handling of Mr Assange case. It claimed responsibility for the "denial of service" attacks on Twitter, which affected the websites of the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office.
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