Ben Sullivan Deserves More Than An Apology

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Ben Sullivan is a third year student at University of Oxford’s Christ Church college. He also serves as the President of the Oxford Union, the prestigious debating society that dates back to 1823. He was arrested in early May on rape charges. After a six week investigation, the police  said that they have dropped the investigation because there is no evidence. They will not pursue the matter further.

Rape is a very serious matter and should be prosecuted in the most vigorous manner possible; however in an era when police are required to accept any allegations and turn them into public charges, the accused’s rights should also be defended. Sullivan, his family and friends, and the Oxford Union have been damaged. Memories have been scarred. History cannot be unwritten. No apologies will be forthcoming.

Sullivan was arrested in the early morning hours of Wednesday May, 7th. He was detained and questioned about an alleged rape in January 2013 and another allegation of attempted rape that was indicated to have occurred in April 2013. The charges were filed by  two unnamed female Oxford students.

Meanwhile, his arrest caused uproar in Oxford and upheaval in the Oxford Union itself. Sullivan was initially replaced with an acting President, but returned to his post when it was revealed that such replacement was outside the rules of the Union. There was also an effort to call for a no confidence vote against Sullivan, but he survived as President when a principled defense was offered that killed the vote. There were several resignations by officers of the Oxford Union, a campaign calling for Sullivan’s resignation, and a campaign to encourage future debate guests to cancel their appearances at the Oxford Union.

This is the situation I found myself thrown into just prior to my own debate at the Oxford Union on the Proposition: This House (i.e. the Oxford Union) should oppose the War on Drugs. I quickly began to do my research on the situation and reported the results to people who were familiar with such legal issues. They confirmed my suspicions that there was little doubt that Sullivan was innocent and that most likely the charges were trumped-up acts of retribution.

The whole matter seems to have begun when the Oxford Union invited Julian Assange to attend a debate via Skype. The fact that Assange is a famous whistle blower via WikiLeaks and has been charged with sexual assault created a firestorm at the University of Oxford. Assange really is a controversial, compared with people like Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and Condolleezza Rice who were sacked as Commencement speakers by Rutgers University and Smith College, respectively, because they were too controversial. I thoroughly disagree with both Lagarde and Rice, but would not use that disagreement to block their appearances, anymore than I would block Assange’s.

In any case the Oxford Union and Sullivan were roundly attacked for their firm and principled stance in defense of inviting Assange to a debate. The attacks and protests were against both Assange’s leaking of government secrets and the rape charge against him, but it seems from media reports that the rape charge and his unwillingness to seek “justice” in Swedish courts, dominated matters.

The emotional outrage is understandable, but it is not based on a clear understanding of the overall nature of the Assange case. As Katrin Axelsson and Lisa Longstaff, both spokespersons for Women Against Rape conclude:           

It seems even clearer now, that the allegations against him are a smokescreen behind which a number of governments are trying to clamp down on WikiLeaks for having audaciously revealed to the public their secret planning of wars and occupations with their attendant rape, murder and destruction.[1]

The public criticism pushed Sullivan to the brink and when he was attacked and accused of being a member of a drinking club he threatened to use Union funds pursue a libel suit against the website, The Tab. He ultimately decided to drop the matter but at least one officer of the Union resigned as a result of Sullivan’s plan to use Union funds to pursue a libel suit.

It was this environment in which charges of rape and attempted rape were made to the police. In the modern legal system police are required to accept and investigate all rape and attempted rape charges with nothing more to prove their validity than the claims of those who have allegedly been raped or sexually assaulted. Obviously, the rules of evidence regarding rape must be flexible and open to ensure that rapists are vigorously prosecuted and punished. However, the rules should also protect the accused when there is no corroborating evidence or reasonable suspicion by legal authorities, and when there is a high probability that the charges are politically motivated.

In the aftermath of the rape charges, the Oxford University Student Union passed a measure condemning Ben Sullivan. The Vice President of the OUSU, Sarah Pine, organized a campaign for guest speakers to boycott the Oxford Union debates. This campaign did result in a few withdrawals, but some invitees withdrew not because of the charges, but because of  all the discord within the Union. Initially unaware of the rape charges and institutional chaos, I personally had to threaten to withdraw from the debate in order to obtain some basic logistical information from an officer at the Oxford Union. I told many friends that I attributed the lack of information and response from the Union to it being a “student organization.” Apparently, some guests cancelled because of this lack of communication.

Most invited guests continued to attend the debates. All the invited guest debaters attended my debate on the War on Drugs and the matter never even came up in conversation, including by the two women on the opposition side. However, Tawakkol Karman, Julie Meyer, Eric Whitacre, and the Secretary General of Interpol, Ronald Noble did pull out of Union debates in response to Sarah Pine’s campaign for boycotting the debates.

In contrast, there has been some outspoken opposition by guest speakers who were targeted by Sarah Pine’s campaign. Jennifer Perry, for example, is a leading activist for women’s cyber-safety and she attacked Pine’s boycott of the Oxford Union as “intimidating” and “threatening.” Perry’s own event at the Oxford Union had to be cancelled as the result of Pine’s boycott when only one person showed up for the panel.

Ironically, the topic of Perry’s panel was the stalking and harassment of women, particularly on the internet. Perry told The Telegraph that she was subjected to “an enormous amount of pressure” to cancel the panel, which Perry explained was an event “directed at keeping primarily women safe”.

 “It became apparent that [Sarah Pine’s] agenda wasn’t about keeping women safe and comfortable and coming to the talk. It was more that they wanted another speaker not attending the Union. I don’t want to be hijacked by someone else’s political campaign.”

These actions would suggest that Pine’s boycott reflected a personal or political agenda, rather than a concern for women’s safety.

Also, well-known philosopher A.C. Grayling has defended his decision to speak at the Union in the strongest of terms. “I simply cannot, in all conscience, allow myself to act only on the basis of allegations and suspicions, or of conviction by the kangaroo court of opinion, or trial by press,” Grayling wrote in an open letter defending his decision.

Rape is surely one of the vilest crimes. That is precisely why the accused’s rights should be protected.  There has been no apology and no apology could possibly undo the damage done by the government’s handling of “justice.”

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/aug/23/women-against-rape-julian-assange

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