LONDON (Reuters) - Julian Assange's desperate attempt to avoid being sent from London to Stockholm to face questioning over alleged sex crimes has ignited bitter arguments in Britain over perceptions of rape.
The founder of WikiLeaks has turned his legal travails into a political issue, causing a diplomatic row by taking refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy, but a growing number of critics want to focus attention back onto the allegations of sexual violence.
"Unless you believe there is a global conspiracy to render Assange to the United States all of these tactics seem to be just a way of avoiding facing the due process of law," human rights and civil liberties lawyer Adam Wagner told Reuters.
The allegations against Assange were made by two women, then supporters of WikiLeaks, whom he met in Sweden in August 2010.
Assange has not been charged. He is wanted for questioning on suspicion of rape, unlawful coercion and two cases of sexual molestation. He risks a maximum of four years in jail.
Assange made no mention of this during a 10-minute speech against what he called a U.S. "witch hunt" of WikiLeaks, delivered from the balcony of the Ecuadorean embassy on Sunday.
But his diatribe set off a flurry of reactions from media, women's rights groups and politicians that have shown how little agreement exists on the issue of sexual crime.
George Galloway, a member of parliament from the tiny Respect party, said in a video blog on Monday night that Assange was guilty only of "really bad manners".
He based that view on the fact that one of the women said she had consensual sex with Assange, using a condom, but later awoke to find him having sex with her again with no condom.
"It might be really sordid and bad sexual etiquette, but whatever else it is, it is not rape or you bankrupt the term rape of all meaning," said Galloway.
The politician is well-known in Britain for his provocative stances and it was unclear if he had any significant support for his views, but the widely publicised comments caused outrage.
"I am appalled that a member of parliament could be so grossly irresponsible as to suggest that sex without consent is anything other than rape," said fellow lawmaker Jo Swinson of the Liberal Democrats, who are part of the ruling coalition.
"As a public figure, rather than obsessing on conspiracy theories he should be sending a very clear signal to any victim of sexual violence that sex without consent is always rape."
The fallout from the Galloway blog echoed a controversy raging across the Atlantic over U.S. Republican congressman Todd Akin's assertion that women had biological defences to prevent pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape".
In Britain, Galloway was hotter news than Akin, but the comments from women's groups could apply to both controversies.
"Those who hold positions of power, or who have a public platform, have a responsibility to be informed about the law and not to use their position to promote myths or victim-blaming attitudes about sexual violence," said a spokeswoman for British campaign group End Violence Against Women.
Assange says he had consensual sex with the two women. He has said the timing of the allegations, when WikiLeaks was at the height of its activity and had infuriated Washington with a flood of revelations, was "deeply disturbing".
That is dismissed as a conspiracy theory by his many critics, who include a majority of Britons according to a YouGov poll. It found that a large majority thought Ecuador should not protect Assange and he would get a fair trial in Sweden.
Levels of support for Assange were, however, higher among men than women. The poll, conducted on August 16-17 for the Sunday Times, found that 31 percent of men supported Ecuador's decision to grant Assange asylum, versus just 18 percent of women.
"There is a much larger than normal gender gap. Men are far more sympathetic than women to Mr Assange. This may reflect the fact that Mr Assange stands accused of rape and sexual assault," said Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov.
Passions were stirred by a debate on the BBC's Newsnight programme on Monday, when former British ambassador Craig Murray named one of the women making allegations against Assange and encouraged viewers to research her background on the Internet.
Murray labelled the allegations "dubious" and said they were part of a "political agenda".
The programme's anchor rebuked him for naming the alleged rape victim on live television. Fellow guest Joan Smith, a columnist at the Independent newspaper, said some left-leaning men were "queuing up to cast aspersions on these women" because they were sympathetic to Assange's political stance.
Editing by Giles Elgood