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Julian Assange Freed After Pleading Guilty in US Espionage Charge Plea Deal

Published: June 28, 2024
(Image: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at a United States District Court in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, U.S., June 26, 2024. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange pled guilty on Wednesday, June 26, to violating U.S. espionage law, a move that allowed him to return home to Australia after a 14-year legal odyssey. 

According to filings in the U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands, Assange, 52, has agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified U.S. national defense documents.

The deal marks the end of a more than a decade-long saga that has seen Assange spend more than five years in a British high-security jail, and seven locked up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

At the same time, he also fought accusations of sex crimes in Sweden and battled extradition to the U.S., where he faced 18 criminal charges.

The U.S. government viewed him as a reckless villain, who had endangered the lives of agents through WikiLeaks’ mass release of secret U.S. documents. 

It was the largest security breach of their kind in U.S. military history.

His supporters, many journalists and international organizations considered him a hero, for exposing wrongdoing and alleged war crimes, and many stated he was persecuted for embarrassing U.S. authorities and exposing their misdeeds. 

Assange was sentenced to 62 months (of time already served) at a hearing in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, at 9 a.m. local time (23.00 GMT Tuesday).

The U.S. Pacific territory was chosen due to Assange’s opposition to traveling to the mainland U.S. and also for its proximity to Australia.

Assange left Belmarsh maximum security jail in the early hours of Monday, before being bailed by the London High Court. 

His wife Stella Assange said he later boarded a flight, adding he was currently on a stopover in Bangkok, Thailand.

“I feel elated,” Stella, who flew to Australia from London on Sunday, June 23, with the couple’s two children, told Reuters.”I also feel worried … Until it’s fully signed off, I worry, but it looks like we’ve got there.”

A video posted on X by Wikileaks showed Assange dressed in a blue shirt and jeans signing a document before boarding a private jet.

A long ordeal

The Australian government has been pressing U.S. President Joe Biden for Assange’s release, but declined to comment on the legal proceedings as they were currently ongoing.

“There is nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia,” Prime Minister Albanese said in the country’s parliament.

WikiLeaks came to prominence in 2010 after it released hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. military documents.

The main topics of the dumps were Washington’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq along with swaths of diplomatic cables.

More than 700,000 documents were disclosed, including battlefield accounts such as a 2007 video of a U.S. helicopter firing at suspected insurgents in Iraq, killing a dozen people including two Reuters news staff. 

Mike Pence, who served as U.S. Vice President under Donald Trump when the charges were brought against Assange, said: “Julian Assange endangered the lives of our troops in a time of war and should have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” 

“The Biden administration’s plea deal with Assange is a miscarriage of justice and dishonors the service and sacrifice of the men and women of our Armed Forces and their families,” Pence added on X.

The charges against Assange sparked outrage among his many global supporters. 

They have long argued that as the publisher of Wikileaks, he should not face charges typically used against federal government employees who steal or leak information.

Stella Assange said the U.S. government should have dropped the case against her husband altogether. “We will be seeking a pardon, obviously, but the fact that there is a guilty plea, under the Espionage Act, in relation to obtaining and disclosing national defense information is obviously a very serious concern for journalists,” she said.

Assange was first arrested in Britain in 2010, when he got an European arrest warrant by Swedish authorities, who said they wanted to question him over sex-crime allegations. The allegations were later dropped. 

He then fled to Ecuador’s embassy, where he remained for seven years, to avoid extradition to Sweden, but was dragged out of there in 2019 after Ecuador withdrew his asylum status.

The journalist was then jailed for skipping bail and has been in Belmarsh ever since, fighting extradition to the United States. 

Reuters contributed to this report.