WikiLeaks Founder Assange Freed In US Plea Deal

Julian Assange was on his way home to Australia as a free man Wednesday, following a plea deal that ended years of legal turmoil for the WikiLeaks founder, who had long been wanted for disclosing US state secrets.

Assange was released from a high-security British prison this week after publishing hundreds of thousands of sensitive US papers on a whistleblowing website since 2010.

The 52-year-old traveled to the Northern Mariana Islands, a Pacific US territory, to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to collect and distribute national defense secrets.

He was sentenced to five years and two months in prison on Wednesday, although he was given credit for the same amount of time he spent in British custody while seeking extradition to the US.

“You will be able to walk out of this courtroom as a free man,” the judge told Assange, adding that she hoped the settlement would provide him some “peace” after his imprisonment.

Assange has become a hero to free speech supporters and a villain to those who believe he jeopardized US security and intelligence sources.

“Working as a journalist, I encouraged my source to provide material that was said to be classified,” Assange told the court, clad in a black suit with a brown tie and his hair slicked back.

However, he did not address the media as he exited the building, and his jet departed shortly thereafter for Canberra, where he will be reunited with his family.

His lawyer, Jen Robinson, told reporters it was a “historic day” that “brings to an end 14 years of legal battles”.

“It also brings to an end a case which has been recognised as the greatest threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century,” she said.

Case ‘dragged on’ 

During the proceedings, Assange appeared exhausted but calm, exchanging a quick chuckle with Kevin Rudd, Australia’s ambassador to the United States.

Journalists and interested residents, many wearing colorful Hawaiian shirts, packed the small courtroom. One Saipan resident told AFP that he had come to “see the main event”.

The Northern Mariana Islands were chosen for the hearing due to Assange’s refusal to travel to the continental United States and their proximity to Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hailed the plea agreement as a “welcome development”.

His government had stated that Assange’s case had “dragged on for too long” and that “nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration”.

The United Nations also welcomed Assange’s release, stating that the case had raised human rights issues.

Former US Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, condemned the plea deal on social networking platform X as a “miscarriage of justice” that “dishonours the service and sacrifice of the men and women of our Armed Forces.”

Following the hearing, the US Justice Department issued an order prohibiting Assange from returning without permission.

‘Can’t stop crying’ 

US officials intended to prosecute Assange for disclosing military secrets concerning the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

In 2019, a US federal grand jury indicted him on 18 counts related to WikiLeaks’ disclosure of a trove of national security documents.

He published documents through WikiLeaks, including a video of civilians being killed by fire from a US helicopter gunship in Iraq in 2007. The victims included a Reuters photographer and driver.

In 2019, he was caught and imprisoned in London’s Belmarsh prison after spending seven years in Ecuador’s embassy in the UK capital to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced sexual assault charges that were later dismissed.

He met his wife Stella Assange while locked up in the embassy, and the two married in a ceremony at London’s Belmarsh Prison. They have two younger children.

“I can’t stop crying,” Stella, who will wait for him in Australia, told X.

The plea deal was announced two weeks before Assange was supposed to appear in British court to appeal a verdict that granted his extradition to the United States.

Washington accused Assange of violating the 1917 Espionage Act, and supporters warned he might face up to 175 years in prison.

The plea agreement was not completely anticipated. US President Joe Biden had faced mounting pressure to dismiss the long-running prosecution against Assange.

The Australian government filed an official request to that effect in February, and Biden said he would examine it, increasing expectations among Assange supporters that his agony would be over.

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