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WikiLeaks founder Assange to be freed from prison

WikiLeaks founder Assange to be freed from prison

26 Jun 2024

  • To plead guilty in deal with US 

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the United States (US) Justice Department that will allow him to walk free and resolve a long-running legal saga that spanned multiple continents and centred on the publication of a trove of classified documents.

Assange left a British prison on Monday (24) and will appear later this week in the US Federal Court in the Northern Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth in the Western Pacific. He is expected to plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defence information, the Department said in a letter filed in Court. The guilty plea, which must be approved by a Judge, brings an abrupt conclusion to a criminal case of international intrigue and to the US Government’s years-long pursuit of a publisher whose hugely popular secret sharing website made him a cause célèbre among many press freedom advocates who said that he acted as a journalist to expose US military wrongdoing. Investigators, by contrast, have repeatedly asserted that his actions broke laws meant to protect sensitive information and put the country’s national security at risk.

He is expected to return to Australia after his plea and sentencing, which is scheduled for this morning (26), local time in Saipan, the largest Island in the Mariana Islands. The hearing is taking place there because of Assange’s opposition to travelling to the continental US and the Court’s proximity to Australia.

In a statement posted on the social media service platform X, WikiLeaks said that Assange had boarded a plane and departed the United Kingdom (UK) on Monday after leaving the British prison. WikiLeaks applauded the announcement of the deal, saying that it was grateful for “all who stood by us, fought for us, and remained utterly committed in the fight for his freedom.” 

“WikiLeaks published groundbreaking stories of Government corruption and human rights abuses, holding the powerful accountable for their actions. As the Editor-In-Chief, Assange paid severely for these principles, and for the people’s right to know,” WikiLeaks said.

The deal ensures that Assange will admit guilt while also sparing him from any 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 a 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 (May), 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 an American citizen if extradited from Britain.

Assange has been heralded by many around the world as a hero who brought to light military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the files published by WikiLeaks was a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

But, his reputation was also tarnished by rape allegations, which he has denied.

The Justice Department’s indictment unsealed in 2019 accused Assange of encouraging and helping US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks published in 2010. Prosecutors had accused Assange of damaging national security by publishing documents that harmed the US and its allies and aided its adversaries.

Prosecutors said in a charging document filed in connection with the plea agreement that Assange conspired with Manning to receive and obtain documents, notes and other writings related to national defence and to “willfully communicate” those records. The document takes care to note that Assange was “not a US citizen, did not possess a US security clearance, and did not have authorisation to possess, access, or control documents, writings, or notes relating to the national defence of the US, including classified information.”

The case was lambasted by press advocates and Assange supporters. Federal prosecutors defended it as targeting conduct that went way beyond that of a journalist gathering information, amounting to an attempt to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified Government documents. 

Assange made headlines in 2016 after his website published Democratic emails that prosecutors say were stolen by Russian intelligence operatives. He was never charged in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, but the inquiry laid bare in stark detail the role that the hacking operation played in interfering in that year’s Election on behalf of then Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 and was granted political asylum after Courts in England ruled that he should be extradited to Sweden as part of a rape investigation in the Scandinavian country. He was arrested by British Police after Ecuador’s Government withdrew his asylum status in 2019 and then jailed him for skipping bail when he first took shelter inside the Embassy.

Although Sweden eventually dropped its sex crimes investigation because so much time had elapsed, Assange has remained in London’s high security Belmarsh Prison during the extradition battle with the US.

(The Associated Press) 

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