Julian Assange: WikiLeaks founder pleads guilty and obtains his freedom

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (AP) — WikiLeaks founder Julien Assange pleaded guilty Wednesday to obtaining and publishing U.S. military secrets in an agreement with Justice Department prosecutors which guarantees his freedom and concludes a long legal saga that has raised controversial questions about press freedom and national security.

The international criminal case, which has been playing out for years on major global stages in Washington and London, ended unexpectedly in a most unusual context, when Assange, 52, pleaded guilty in a court in U.S. district in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands. The US Commonwealth in the Pacific is relatively close to Assange’s native Australia and accommodated his desire to avoid entering the continental United States.

The deal required the iconoclastic internet publisher to admit guilt to a single charge, but also allowed him to return to Australia without going to a US prison. The judge sentenced him to the five years he had already spent behind bars in the United Kingdom, fighting extradition in the United States under an Espionage Act indictment that could have carried a lengthy prison sentence if convicted. Before that, he was locked up for seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

He smiled slightly as U.S. District Judge Ramona Manglona handed down the sentence, declaring him a “free man.”

The conclusion allows both parties to affirm a certain satisfaction. The Justice Department, faced with a defendant who had already served a long prison sentence, was able to resolve – without a trial – a case that raised thorny legal questions and that might never have been brought before a jury given given the tedious pace of the extradition process. Assange, for his part, was reluctantly pleased with the resolution, telling the court that while he believed the Espionage Act contradicted the First Amendment, he accepted the consequences of soliciting classified information. from sources for publication.


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, left, is escorted as he arrives at the U.S. courthouse where he is expected to take a plea deal, in Saipan, Mariana Islands, Wednesday, June 26, 2024. ( AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at the U.S. courthouse where he is expected to enter a plea deal, in Saipan, Mariana Islands, Wednesday, June 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange’s lawyers, told reporters after the hearing that the case “sets a dangerous precedent that should worry journalists around the world.”

“It is a huge relief for Julian Assange, for his family, for his friends, for his supporters and for us – for everyone who believes in freedom of expression around the world – that he can now return home in Australia and reunite with his family. ” she says.

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 UK.

Inside the courthouse, he answered basic questions from Manglona, ​​an appointee of former President Barack Obama, and appeared to listen intently as the terms of the deal were discussed.

He appeared upbeat and relaxed during the hearing, occasionally joking with the judge. As he signed his plea agreement, he joked about the nine-hour time difference between the UK and Saipan. At another point, when the judge asked him if he was happy with the terms of the plea, Assange replied, “That might depend on the outcome,” prompting some laughter in the courtroom.

“So far, so good,” the judge replied.

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


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at the U.S. courthouse where he is expected to enter a plea deal, in Saipan, Mariana Islands, Wednesday, June 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

The criminal case brought by the Trump administration’s Justice Department focuses on the receipt and release of hundreds of thousands of war logs and diplomatic cables containing details of U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Prosecutors alleged that he teamed up with Chelsea Manning, a former military intelligence analyst, to obtain the documents, including conspiring to crack a Defense Department computer password, and that he published them without regard to American national security. The names of human sources who provided information to U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were among the details revealed, prosecutors said.

But his activities sparked a groundswell of support from press freedom advocates, who praised his role in shining a light on military behavior that might otherwise have remained hidden and warned of a chilling effect on the journalists. Among the files released by WikiLeaks was 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 it.

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


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, right, arrives, surrounded by media, at the U.S. courthouse where he is expected to reach a plea deal, in Saipan, Mariana Islands, Wednesday, June 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

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, hosting 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 remained locked up for the past five years while the Justice Department sought to extradite him, in a process that faced skepticism from British judges concerned about how Assange would be treated by the UNITED STATES.

Ultimately, the resolution sparing Assange a U.S. prison sentence contradicts years of worrying warnings from Assange and his supporters that the U.S. criminal justice system would expose him to excessively harsh treatment, including including potentially the death penalty – a sentence prosecutors never sought.

Last month, Assange won the right to appeal an extradition order after his lawyers argued the U.S. government had provided “manifestly insufficient” assurances that he would receive the same free speech protections as a U.S. citizen if extradited from Britain.

His wife, Stella Assange, told the BBC from Australia that it took 72 hours for the deal to be finalized, but that she felt “delighted” with the news.

After the morning hearing, Assange flew out of Saipan around noon to Australia, where his relatives were waiting to meet him.

Assange left the London prison where he has spent the past five years on Monday after being released on bail at a secret hearing last week. The plane carrying him and Australian officials landed to refuel in Bangkok en route to Saipan. A video published by WikiLeaks on the X platform showed Assange staring intently out the window at the blue sky as the plane headed toward the island.

“Imagine. Over 5 years in a small cell in a maximum security prison. Nearly 14 years in UK detention for this,” WikiLeaks wrote.


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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