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Julian Assange pleads guilty in deal with U.S. that secures his freedom and ends his legal fight – Orange County Register

By MARI YAMAGUCHI, KIMBERLY ESMORES, ALANNA DURKIN RICHER and ERIC TUCKER

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has pleaded guilty to a single charge of obtaining and publishing U.S. military secrets as part of a deal with Justice Department prosecutors that secures his freedom and concludes a long legal saga that has raised controversial questions about press freedom. and national security.

The plea was filed Wednesday morning in a federal court in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. Pacific commonwealth that responded to Assange’s desire to avoid entering the continental United States.

Addressing the court, Assange said he believed the espionage law he was charged under contradicted First Amendment rights, but accepted it could be illegal to encourage sources to provide classified information for publication.

Although the deal with prosecutors requires him to admit guilt to just one charge, it would also allow him to return to his native Australia without spending time in a U.S. prison. He had been imprisoned in the United Kingdom for five years, fighting extradition to the United States on an Espionage Act charge that could have carried a lengthy prison sentence if convicted.

This abrupt conclusion allows both sides to claim some victory, with the Justice Department able to resolve without a trial a case that raised thorny legal questions and that might never have gone to a jury given the tedious pace of the extradition process. WikiLeaks, the secrets-disclosing website founded by Assange in 2006, applauded the deal’s announcement, saying it was grateful to “everyone who stood with us, fought for us and remained totally committed.” in the fight for his freedom.

Assange arrived at court in a dark suit, with a tie loosened around his collar, after leaving Britain on a charter plane accompanied by members of his legal team and Australian officials, including Australia’s top diplomat in the UK accompanied Assange on the flight.

Inside the courthouse, he answered basic questions from U.S. District Judge Ramona Manglona, ​​an appointee of former President Barack Obama, and appeared to listen intently as the terms of the deal were discussed. As a condition of his plea, he will be asked to destroy information provided to WikiLeaks.

The plea deal, disclosed Monday evening in a sketchy letter from the Justice Department, represents the latest and likely final chapter in a legal battle involving the eccentric Australian computer expert who has been celebrated by his supporters as a defender of transparency but castigated by the national security hawks who insist. that his disregard for government secrecy put lives at risk and fell well outside the bounds of traditional journalistic functions.

The U.S. Justice Department agreed to hold the hearing on the isolated island because Assange has opposed coming to the continental United States and because the island is close to Australia, where he will return after pleading guilty.

The guilty plea ends a criminal case brought by the Trump administration’s Justice Department in connection with the receipt and publication of war logs and diplomatic cables detailing U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prosecutors alleged that he conspired with former military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to obtain the documents and published them without regard to U.S. national security, including by disclosing the names of human sources who provided information to U.S. forces.

But his activities have drawn a wave of support from press freedom advocates, who have hailed his role in exposing military behavior that might otherwise have remained hidden. Among the files released by WikiLeaks was a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by U.S. forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

The indictment was unsealed in 2019, but Assange’s legal troubles long preceded the criminal case and continued well beyond.

Weeks after the release of the largest cache of documents in 2010, a Swedish prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Assange based on one woman’s rape allegations and another’s allegations of assault. Assange long maintained his innocence and the investigation was later abandoned.

He showed up in 2012 at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he sought asylum from political persecution, and spent the next seven years in exile there, organizing a parade of famous visitors and making periodic appearances from the building’s balcony to address supporters.

In 2019, his hosts withdrew his asylum, allowing British police to arrest him. He has remained in prison for the past five years while the Justice Department sought to extradite him, in a process that has met with skepticism from British judges worried about how Assange would be treated by the American criminal justice system.

Ultimately, however, the resolution sparing Assange a U.S. prison sentence is a rejection of years of ominous warnings from Assange and his supporters that the U.S. criminal justice system is l would expose him to unduly harsh treatment, potentially including the death penalty – something prosecutors believe. never looked for it.

Tucker reported from Fort Pierce, Fla., and Durkin Richer from Washington. Associated Press writers Colleen Long in Washington, Napat Kongsawad and David Rising in Bangkok, Jill Lawless and Brian Melley in London and Rod McGuirk in Melbourne, Australia, contributed to this report.

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