Weeks after WikiLeaks released thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, the organization’s founder, Julian Assange, was arrested in Britain on charges that he sexually assaulted two women in Sweden.

Supporters of WikiLeaks decry Assange’s arrest as politically motivated. Of course it is. When was the last time we saw an international manhunt for an alleged date rapist?

But it is disturbing how many WikiLeaks’ defenders have completely dismissed the idea that Julian Assange may be guilty of a crime. As if it’s impossible for a guy to be admired, talented, or unjustly politically targeted AND a rapist. (Roman Polanski, anyone?) Bloggers are tripping over each other in their rush to make the usual victim-blaming, rapist-excusing arguments: she agreed to sex and regretted it later; she’s a man-hating feminist; she couldn’t have been raped because she was friendly toward him the next day.

There are also some more original arguments for why Assange should not have to face the charges against him. Like that Sweden is a bizarre, feminist dystopia where sex without condoms is criminal and courts reflexively believe women. Bloggers are deliberately using a strange-sounding English translation of the charges — “sex by surprise” — to make the accusations seem ridiculous. Even Naomi Wolf is leveraging her feminist credentials to mock the women and their “injured feelings”.

I don’t know whether Julian Assange raped anybody. But the charges against him are serious. Assange is accused of refusing to stop sex when one woman told him to, pinning her down with his body. He is accused of having sex with another woman while she was sleeping. Should he get a pass because he is a political target?

We all know these charges would never be pursued without the U.S. vendetta against WikiLeaks. But attacking the women who say Assange raped them doesn’t advance free speech. Far from it. The misogynist blustering manages to distract from the important debate about democracy, state secrets, and the limits of journalism — and empower rapists at the same time.