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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange agrees plea deal in exchange for freedom

Julian Assange speaks to the media outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, 19 May 2017
Julian Assange speaks to the media outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, 19 May 2017 Copyright AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File
Copyright AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File
By Angela Skujins
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Assange is expected to return to his home country of Australia after his plea and sentencing.


Julian Assange is travelling from the UK via Bangkok to the US Pacific Ocean territory on Tuesday to enter a plea deal with the US government that would guarantee his freedom.

The agreement will resolve a legal case spanning decades and continents over the publication of a trove of classified documents from the US military and State Department, as well as internal emails from Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.

Assange is expected to appear in a court in the US commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Western Pacific on Wednesday and plead guilty to one Espionage Act charge, according to the US Justice Department in a letter filed in court. The charge is related to conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defence information.

Assange's wife, Stella Assange, posted a photo on social media platform X of her 52-year-old husband allegedly calling her from London's Stansted Airport after he was released from high-security Belmarsh prison, where he was jailed for the last five years.

Assange, an Australian national, is expected to return to his home country after his plea and sentencing.

The hearing is set to take place in Saipan — the largest island in the Northern Marianas. This location was set due to Assange’s refusal to travel to the continental US and the court’s proximity to Australia, prosecutors said.

The guilty plea, which a judge must approve, brings an abrupt conclusion to a criminal case of international intrigue and the US government’s years-long pursuit of Assange. WikiLeaks applauded the deal, saying it was grateful for “all who stood by us, fought for us, and remained utterly committed in the fight for his freedom”.

The website's staff said the platform publishes "ground-breaking stories" regarding government corruption and human rights abuses and successfully holds the powerful to account. "As editor-in-chief, Julian paid severely for these principles, and for the people’s right to know,” they added.

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief and Icelandic investigative journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson wrote on social media that today was an "important day of joy", while Assange’s mother, Christine Assange, said the plea deal “shows the importance and power of quiet diplomacy.”

“I am grateful that my son’s ordeal is finally coming to an end,” she said in a statement.

What happened?

Assange founded investigative journalism website WikiLeaks in 2006 to protect whistle-blowers, journalists and activists wanting to communicate sensitive materials, according to its website.

Years later, the multijurisdictional platform published a trove of insider files related to the US government's involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan war.

Among the documents was a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by US forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

In 2019, Washington indicted Assange on 18 charges over WikiLeaks' publication of classified information.

The WikiLeaks editor and publisher maintained that he was acting as a journalist to expose US military wrongdoing.


Government investigators have asserted his actions broke laws meant to protect sensitive information and consequentially put the country’s national security and personnel abroad at risk.

'Julian Assange is free'

The deal ensures that Assange will admit guilt while sparing him from additional prison time.

He had spent years hiding out in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after Swedish authorities sought his arrest on rape allegations before being locked up in the UK.

Assange is expected to be sentenced to the five years he has already spent in the high-security British prison while fighting to avoid extradition to the US to face charges, a process that has played out in a series of hearings in London.


Last month, he won the right to appeal an extradition order after his lawyers argued that the US government provided “blatantly inadequate” assurances that he would have the same free speech protections as a US citizen if extradited from the UK.

'Case has dragged on for too long'

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has been lobbying for the US to end its prosecution of Assange, told Parliament that an Australian envoy had flown with Assange from London. “Regardless of the views that people have about Mr Assange’s activities, the case has dragged on for too long," he said.

"There's nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia."

Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Assange's release is the work of the Albanese government and efforts led by the prime minister, explaining that the issue had been raised "at the most senior levels," including with US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.


Assange's release has received bipartisan support in Australia.

Former Australian deputy prime minister and member of the conservative National Party Barnaby Joyce — who campaigned heavily for Assange's freedom at the beginning of the year — told reporters at Parliament House on Tuesday, "We just got to be cautious, still cautious, on how this proceeds because the end has not arrived."

Foreign Affairs Shadow Minister Simon Birmingham also welcomed the apparent end to the prosecution, saying that the US and UK justice systems "should be respected".

“We welcome the fact that Mr Assange’s decision to plead guilty will bring this long-running saga to an end,” Birmingham added.


In February, a bill calling for Washington and the UK to bring the matter to a close was supported by 86 Australian lawmakers in the 151-seat House of Representatives.

'Victory for journalists around the world'

Various non-governmental organisations and union bodies are celebrating the news.

International Federation of Journalists President Dominique Pradalié said in an online statement Assange and journalism won when the US dropped all but one charge.

"Julian Assange is free. Victory for the right to inform and to be informed. Victory for journalists around the world," he said.


While Australia's largest media union, the Media, Entertainment, and Arts Alliance, issued an online statement supporting Assange's release, "media freedom concerns remain".

"While the details of the deal are still to be confirmed, MEAA welcomes the release of Assange, a Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance member, after five years of relentless campaigning by journalists, unions, and press freedom advocates around the world," the organisation said.

Meanwhile, Tim Dawson, the deputy general secretary of the National Union of Journalists — a trade union for UK and Irish media workers — said this was a "victory for common sense, media freedom, and human decency."

"For the US, expending such energy attempting to incarcerate the Wikileaks founder for the rest of his life has exposed a bullying nature, damaged its reputation as a haven for free speech, has shone an unforgiving light on its military operations," he said in the online statement.


"This agreement creates the opportunity to repair that damage."

Additional sources • AP

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