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‘Julian Assange is free’: Wikileaks founder freed in deal with US

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been freed from prison in the United Kingdom and is on his way home to Australia after agreeing to plead guilty to a single charge of breaching the espionage law in the United States.

Assange, 52, will plead guilty to one count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified US national defence documents, according to a filing in the US District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

He was freed from the UK’s high-security Belmarsh prison on Monday and taken to the airport whre he flew out of the country. Assange will appear at a court in Saipan, a US Pacific territory at 9am on Wednesday (23:00 GMT on Tuesday) where he will be sentenced to 62 months of time already served.

“Julian Assange is free,” Wikileaks said in a statement posted on X.

“He left Belmarsh maximum security prison on the morning of 24 June, after having spent 1901 days there. He was granted bail by the High Court in London and was released at Stanstead airport during the afternoon, where he boarded a plane and departed the UK.”

“Julian is free!!!!” wife Stella wrote on X. “Words cannot express our immense gratitude to YOU – yes, YOU, who have all mobilised for years and years to make this come true. THANK YOU. tHANK YOU, THANK YOU.”

Assange rose to prominence with the launch of Wikileaks in 2006, creating an online whistleblower platform for people to submit classified material such as documents and videos anonymously.

Footage of a US Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad, which killed a dozen people, including two journalists, raised the platform’s profile, while the 2010 release of hundreds of thousands of classified US documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a trove of diplomatic cables, cemented its reputation.

‘Holding the powerful accountable’

Wikileaks published material about many countries, but it was the US, during the administration of former US President Donald Trump, that decided to charge him in 2019 with 17 counts of breaching the Espionage Act.

US lawyers had argued he conspired with Chelsea Manning, a former army intelligence analyst, who spent seven years in prison for leaking material to WikiLeaks. She was freed when  US President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017.

The charges sparked outrage, with Assange’s supporters arguing that, as the publisher and editor-in-chief of Wikileaks, he should not have faced charges usually used against government employees who steal or leak information.

Press freedom advocates, meanwhile, argued that criminally charging Assange was a threat to free speech.

“WikiLeaks published groundbreaking stories of government corruption and human rights abuses, holding the powerful accountable for their actions,” Wikileaks said in its statement announcing the plea deal.

“As editor-in-chief, Julian paid severely for these principles, and for the people’s right to know. As he returns to Australia, we thank all who stood by us, fought for us, and remained utterly committed in the fight for his freedom.”

The filing from the US Department of Justice describing the plea deal [US Department of Justice via Reuters]

Assange was first arrested in London in 2010 on a Swedish warrant accusing him of sexual assault. Allowed bail pending the extradition case, Assange took refuge in Ecuador’s London Embassy in 2012 after a court ruled he could be sent to Sweden for trial.

He spent the next seven years in the tiny embassy – during which time Swedish police withdrew the rape charges – before UK police arrested him on charges of breaching his bail conditions. Assange was being held in prison in the UK as the US extradition case went through the courts.

The plea deal, announced on Tuesday, was not entirely unexpected. US President Joe Biden had been under growing pressure to drop the long-running case against Assange.

In February the government of Australia made an official request to this effect and Biden said he would consider it, raising hopes among Assange supporters that his ordeal might end. At the time, the Australian government said Assange’s case had “dragged on for too long and there is nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration”.

Assange’s mother, Christine, in a statement to Australian media, said on Tuesday that she was grateful that her son’s “ordeal is finally coming to an end”.

“This shows the importance and power of quiet diplomacy,” she said in the statement carried by public broadcaster ABC and other media.

Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Al Jazeera she was delighted at the news of Assange’s expected release.

“If Julian had been extradited to the US and prosecuted under the Espionage Act […] it would have had serious implications for journalists globally who seek information in the public interest, classified documents, and who then publish them in the public interest,” she said from New York. “Remember, of course that Julian is not a US citizen. He is an Australian citizen and if he had been brought to the US and had he been prosecuted, that could have meant that journalist anywhere seeking to publish information about human rights abuses, as Wikileaks did, could have found themselves pursued and prosecuted as the US had done with Julian.”

She added that the plea deal was a way for the Biden administration to save face, amid the increased pressure to release Assange, especially from Australia.

“They [the Biden administration] have a guilty plea on a criminal charge, but only on one criminal charge of course, and not the 18 that he was being prosecuted for and that could have seen him face 175 years in total in jail.  And Julian has been released to his home country and will now be able to spend time with his family and with his loved ones.”

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