Probably the planet's most vilified women

The WikiLeaks story was once about US cables. Now it's about sex.

If the two Swedish women who went to bed with Julian Assange reproached themselves for their gullibility a few days later, it must be – unless they are made of very stern stuff – as nothing to their regret now. They have become, in the online world where their identities are discoverable almost instantly, the most vilified women on the planet.

With denial-of-service attacks on leading brands by the pro-Assangist "Operation Payback" continuing, Dutch and Swedish prosecutors' websites briefly downed, and online harassment of WikiLeaks itself still ongoing, the anarchy unleashed by the release of the US diplomatic cables (themselves rather the orphans of the saga at present) grows organically by the hour.

While the large corporations targeted by the Assangists have generally withstood the attacks without too much damage, no one outside their own circles knows how the two women involved in his case are faring. Invective is one thing, but the material being bandied around about Accuser 1 and Accuser 2 is surely unprecedented in ongoing investigations into alleged sex offences, where anonymity for alleged victims is the norm. Their names and faces are freely available (Google one of them, and you get 84,900 results), and yesterday it took The Independent on Sunday just a few moments to find the women's home addresses and mobile phone numbers on the net. A Google "Street View" user could pick out the buildings in seconds.

Few of these postings are friendly, and some are viciously hostile to two women whose claims are yet to be tested in court. Many also contain assertions about the women, and about one in particular, that claim a link with right-wing groups, Cuban exiles, and individuals with alleged ties to the CIA. None of these claims has yet been proven.

A mild example of the kind of detail found is an Australian website's claim in recent days that Accuser 1 was no longer in Sweden, having gone to work with a Christian group in Israel. The group, whose name is widely used online but which we have withheld on legal advice, denied that she was there, though it conceded she had undergone 10 days' training for such a mission, but then withdrew. Their statement, corroborating the woman's involvement, was a reminder that not all of what has been written about the women online can be assumed to be concocted or unfounded rumour.

The same Australian site, called Crikey, also said she was no longer co-operating with the prosecutors, a claim upon which Swedish officials have not commented. Other sites have made much of the online guide posted by one of the women on how to take revenge on a former lover. There are also claims that they deleted tweets (or tried to), leaked news of a potential case against Mr Assange to a Swedish newspaper, and, in the case of Accuser 2, pursued him like a besotted fan, an allegation which, even if true, would have no bearing on what may or may not have happened. In this atmosphere, guaranteeing a fair trial for Mr Assange, or a fair hearing for his accusers, will take some doing.

The alleged offences spring from a visit Mr Assange paid to Sweden in August at the invitation of the Social Democratic Party's Christian "brotherhood" faction. One of its members, Accuser 1, offered him her vacant apartment. He accepted, she returned early, they dined, and had sex. The next day he spoke at the event, to which Accuser 2 had a ticket. She made contact with Mr Assange, and they later visited a cinema. That evening, Mr Assange attended a party given by Accuser 1. Two days later, Accuser 2 paid for a rail ticket for Mr Assange to visit her, and they had sex, and again the following morning. It was the day after that when Accuser 2, worried she might have been infected, or pregnant, phoned Accuser 1. They compared notes, and went to the police to ask if Mr Assange could be forced to undergo an HIV test. An officer thought offences might have been committed.

The four offences for which the Swedish authorities wish to question him pose problems for any possible prosecution. The first alleged offence involves Accuser 1, who says that on the night of 14 August at her apartment in Stockholm Mr Assange used "unlawful coercion" by using his body weight to hold her down in the course of a sexual encounter. Second, he is alleged to have "sexually molested" Accuser 1 by failing to use a condom when she had insisted that he wear one. Third, in the most vague claim, Mr Assange is said to have "deliberately molested" Accuser 1 on 18 August "in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity". Finally, he is said to have had sex with Accuser 2 without a condom while she was asleep.

But with no forensic evidence taken or available, all of these alleged offences seem to be a matter of one adult's word against that of another. Unless recording devices were in use in the two bedrooms concerned, or there are details (such as bruising on the body of Accuser 1) yet to be made public, it is very hard to see how the offences could be conclusively proved. This means, even if Mr Assange was extradited, it is entirely possible the charges he ultimately faces – if any – may be amended or dropped. After all, despite Sweden's having one of the highest rate of reported sex offences in Europe, only 10 per cent of these end in a conviction.

Yet while Mr Assange's behaviour in bedding both his hostess and a fan within a few days of each other suggests he has a greedy eye for the sexual main chance, this clearly does not warrant the death threats he has received for releasing what are second-level, non-secret cables, nor Sarah Palin's equating him with Osama bin Laden. And, perhaps aware of his image as a crusader for morality and openness, he has distanced himself from the cyber-attacks on Amazon, PayPal and MasterCard, and the Dutch and Swedish prosecutors' websites.

The companies withdrew facilities from WikiLeaks because of the publicising of a US State Department letter to WikiLeaks stating that Mr Assange's operation "may be in possession of documents that were provided in violation of US laws". Yet if that is the case, there would be no difference in the eyes of the law between WikiLeaks' actions and those of the editor of The New York Times or The Guardian.

In response to the firms dropping WikiLeaks, supporters of the site began to retaliate. One activist's message read: "There are some things WikiLeaks can't do. For everything else, there's Operation Payback." The main means of attack is a downloadable file which is then remotely operated to send a stream of bogus page requests to target websites. MasterCard and Visa were briefly put out of action, as was a small part of PayPal's operation. By Friday, the attack file had been requested 40,000 times by WikiLeaks' supporters.

Mr Assange is now detained in Wandsworth Prison, where he has limited internet access, having surrendered himself in response to the UK authorities receiving an extradition request from Sweden. Despite several leading progressives such as John Pilger and Ken Loach offering surety, he was remanded in custody – highly unusual in a case of this kind. His so-called "nomadic lifestyle" counted against him, although it is rather less transient than this phrase suggests: two months of his current stay in England was spent at the Frontline Club in Paddington, London. He will appear in court again on Tuesday.

The degree to which a site founded as a conduit for people to divulge documents on anything from pollution to commercial corruption has, with its founder, become the story itself has bothered former WikiLeaks personnel sufficiently to plan to launch a less high-profile alternative this week. To be called OpenLeaks, it would not publish documents directly, but act as a channel between whistleblowers and mainstream media – both online and off – non-profit organisations, trade unions, and other groups. Reports of this new site appeared in a Swedish newspaper, which quoted one of the anonymous founders as saying: "As a result of our intention not to publish any document directly and in our own name, we do not expect to experience the kind of political pressure which WikiLeaks is under at this time. In that respect, it is quite interesting to see how little of politicians' anger seems directed at the newspapers using WikiLeaks sources."

Such a site would, it seems, provide more targeted leaks than the blanket release of vast quantities that has characterised WikiLeaks in recent months. Such data avalanches, while impressive at one level, are unfocused, and could be seen as a triumph of means over end – the technical facility of the internet allowing the leaking of 250,00 cables which, had it been on paper, would had needed several lorries to carry away.

But, for all its size, the US diplomatic cable leak has yet to produce what, by even the least stringent journalistic yardstick, could be called a bombshell. There is one threatened, though, as US government sources say they fear an imminent tranche of material could include cables showing the Obama administration released Guantanamo Bay detainees, even though it was judged likely they would "return" to terrorism. But, until that happens, the main story is not the message, but the medium, its leader, and his two accusers.

Diplomatic highlights

Here are the edited highlights from a week of leaked US diplomatic cables. We have graded them as follows: A – Genuine revelation; B – You don't say; C – Diplomatic gossip, or unsubstantiated rumour.

Australia

C – The Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who speaks fluent Mandarin, advocated "integrating China effectively into the international community ... while also preparing to deploy force if everything goes wrong".

Britain

B – Gordon Brown's government wanted the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi released because if he died in custody Libya would take "harsh and immediate action".

Burma

C – The grandson of Burma's ruling general urged him to offer $1bn for Man Utd. The general started a Burmese football league instead.

Ireland

A – Caved in to the Vatican and gave immunity to church officials in the in- vestigation into sex abuse by clergy.

Middle East

B – The US pressured Arab governments such as Syria to try and block the supply of weapons to Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Mozambique

B – Leading centre for drug trafficking; government officials are taking bribes not to pursue criminals.

Nicaragua

B – Officials reportedly received "suitcases ... of cash" from Venezuela, then funnelled it to President Ortega allegedly to sway the 2008 elections.

Russia

B – Nato has plans to defend the Baltic states (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) against a threat from Russia.

Saudi Arabia

A – Proposed that an "Arab Army" be sent to Lebanon, with US air support, to stop Hezbollah's 2008 offensive.

B – Memo from Hillary Clinton said the Saudis and their neighbours are the chief donors of the millions flowing to al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.

Yemen

B – Money given by the US and UK for counterterrorism was diverted by the government into a war on Shia rebels.

Zimbabwe

B – US cables reported an executive of a British mining company claiming that insiders in the Mugabe regime, including his wife, were making huge sums by trading in so-called blood diamonds.

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