Julian Assange Granted Freedom After Pleading Guilty to Espionage

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves the U.S. Federal Courthouse in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Saipan on June 26, 2024. Credit - Yuichi Yamazaki—AFP/Getty Images

Julian Assange, the controversial founder of Wikileaks who has been imprisoned in the U.K. since 2019, was visibly emotional on Wednesday local time as he was told by an American judge that he would walk free.

Assange pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information in violation of the espionage law before a court in Saipan, the capital of the U.S. Pacific commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands. The plea was part of a deal with American prosecutors, who had long sought Assange’s extradition for revealing military secrets, in exchange for his return to his home country of Australia without serving any additional prison time. It marks an end to Assange’s 14-year legal battle.

“With this pronouncement it appears you will be able to walk out of this courtroom a free man. I hope there will be some peace restored,” U.S. District Judge Ramona Manglona told Assange. “With that … Mr. Assange it’s apparently an early happy birthday to you, I understand your birthday is next week. I hope you will start your new life in a positive manner.”

WikiLeaks posted on X that Assange, who turns 53 on July 3, is scheduled to fly to Canberra later in the day.

Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson told reporters outside of the courthouse on Wednesday that the plea deal “brings to an end a case which has been recognised as the greatest threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century.”

“Julian Assange is free,” WikiLeaks said in an earlier post on X, after he began his journey out of the U.K. earlier this week. The media company known for publishing classified documents added that its founder “paid severely” for exposing “government corruption and human rights abuses.”

Assange had been wanted by U.S. authorities since 2010 after WikiLeaks published one of the biggest leaks of classified U.S. government documents and videos in history. The leaks were related to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Mr. Assange revealed truthful, newsworthy information,” Barry Pollack, another lawyer for Assange, told reporters on Wednesday. “We firmly believe that Mr. Assange never should have been charged under the espionage act and engaged in exercise that journalists engage in everyday and we are thankful that they do.”

In 2012, Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after the U.K. government ordered him to be extradited to Sweden for separate sexual assault charges he was facing there. Assange’s lawyers had sought assurances that Sweden would not extradite him to the U.S., citing concerns he could face the death penalty and would not have free speech protections as a U.S. citizen.

In 2015, the Swedish government dropped its sexual assault case, saying that the statue of limitation had passed. Nonetheless, the U.S. charges remained in place and Assange continued to stay in the Ecuadorian embassy until 2019, when the Ecuadorian government revoked his asylum. He was subsequently arrested by British authorities and confined until recently in Belmarsh, which has a reputation for being the U.K.’s toughest prison.

Read More: Biden’s Shifting Approach on the Assange WikiLeaks Extradition Case 

Supporters of Assange say that the footage and cables WikiLeaks released with the help of former U.S. army soldier Chelsea Manning revealed possible war crimes committed by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that publishing them was an act of public service. (In 2017, Manning’s 35-year sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama. She had been charged and convicted of espionage in 2013.)

“He never should have spent a single day deprived of his liberty for publishing information in the public interest,” Rebecca Vincent, director of campaigns for Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement. “Nothing can undo the past 13 years, but it is never too late to do the right thing, and we welcome this move by the U.S. government,” she added.

Assange’s father John Shipton, who had also worked on WikiLeaks and spent years campaigning for Assange’s release, has expressed elation at his son’s imminent return. “Well, I mean, doing cartwheels is a good expression of the joy that one feels that Julian is returned home—well, about to return home,” he told Australian ABC News on Wednesday morning.

Assange’s detractors, however, say that the leaks jeopardized U.S. national security and that he has gotten off easy. “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,” former Vice President Mike Pence wrote in a post on X.

Australian leaders have cautiously welcomed the U.S. plea deal. “Regardless of the views that people have about Mr. Assange’s activities, the case has dragged on for too long. There’s nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told Parliament on Tuesday.

“This is not something that has happened in the last 24 hours, this is something that has been considered, patient, worked through in a calibrated way,” Albanese added on Wednesday, as Assange’s court proceedings were ongoing, “which is how Australia conducts ourselves internationally.”

“Today is a historic day,” Robinson, Assange’s lawyer, said.

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