Julian Assange, WikiLeaks Founder, Agrees to Plead Guilty in Deal With U.S.

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks Founder, Agrees to Plead Guilty in Deal With U.S.

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, agreed on Monday to plead guilty to a single crime of illegally obtaining and disclosing national security material in exchange for his release from a British prison, ending his long and bitter standoff with the United States.

Mr. Assange, 52, was granted his request to appear before a federal judge at one of the more remote outposts of the federal judiciary, the courthouse in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, according to a brief court filing released late Monday. He is expected to be sentenced to about five years in prison, equivalent to the time he has already served in Britain, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the terms of the agreement.

It was a fitting final twist in the case against Mr Assange, who has stubbornly opposed extradition to the US mainland. The islands are a polity of the United States in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – and much closer to Assange’s native Australia, where he is a citizen, than courts in the continental United States or Hawaii.

Shortly after the deal was announced, WikiLeaks said that Mr. Assange had left London. Mr. Assange is scheduled to appear in Saipan at 9 a.m. local time on Wednesday and is expected to fly back to Australia “once the trial is complete,” Matthew J. McKenzie, an official with the Justice Department’s counterterrorism division, wrote in a letter to the judge in the case.

Early Tuesday morning, his wife Stella Assange posted a video showing her husband signing papers and boarding a plane on Monday.

Barring last-minute problems, the deal would end a protracted battle that began after Mr. Assange was alternately celebrated and reviled for leaking state secrets in the 2010s.

This included material about American military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as confidential cables exchanged among diplomats. During the 2016 campaign, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, leading to revelations that embarrassed the party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

In 2019, a federal grand jury indicted Mr. Assange on 18 counts related to the dissemination of numerous national security documents through WikiLeaks. This included a trove of materials sent to the organization by Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who had provided information about military planning and operations to the organization nearly a decade earlier.

If convicted, Mr. Assange would have faced a maximum of 170 years in federal prison. Until Monday evening, Mr Assange was being held in Belmarsh, one of Britain’s highest security prisons in southeast London.

According to a report published in The Nation this year, Mr. Assange was locked in a cell for 23 hours a day, eating his meals alone from a tray surrounded by 232 books and having just one hour a day for exercise in a prison yard .

When asked about his pallor, Mr Assange – who has not been able to go outside unsupervised for more than a decade – joked: “They call it prison pale.”

His release was not unexpected. Earlier this year, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese suggested that U.S. prosecutors needed to close the case, and President Biden signaled he was open to a quick resolution. Top Justice Department officials accepted a deal without additional prison time because Mr. Assange had already been in prison longer than most people accused of a similar crime – in this case, over five years in prison in Britain.

Shortly after the charges were dropped in 2019, London’s Metropolitan Police invaded the Ecuadorian embassy where Mr. Assange had sought refuge years earlier to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he was accused of sexual assault. He has been in custody since then as his legal team fought the Justice Department’s efforts to extradite him.

After weeks of negotiations, Mr. Assange pleaded guilty to one of the charges – conspiring to disseminate national defense information – which carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Mr. Assange and his supporters have long argued that his efforts to obtain and publicly release sensitive national security information were in the public interest and deserved the same First Amendment protections afforded to investigative journalists.

Many of Mr. Assange’s supporters renewed those concerns even as they expressed relief that he would be released.

“The United States has now secured a conviction for basic journalistic acts under the Espionage Act for the first time in the more than 100-year history of the Espionage Act,” said David Greene, director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation Civil Liberties, a nonprofit focused on questions of the First Amendment.

“These charges should never have been brought,” he said.

In 2021, a coalition of civil liberties and human rights groups called on the Biden administration to halt its efforts to extradite him from Britain and prosecute him, calling the case “a serious threat” to press freedom.

Much of the behavior he is accused of is “what journalists routinely do,” the group claimed. “News organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information to inform the public about matters of profound public importance.”

But U.S. officials argued that Mr. Assange’s actions went far beyond intelligence gathering and threatened national security. Prosecutors alleged that the material provided by Ms. Manning endangered the lives of service members and Iraqis working with the military and made it more difficult for the country to address external threats.

Mr Assange has remained in Belmarsh as he has repeatedly challenged the order of his deportation. Last month, Mr Assange won an appeal against the extradition order.

Afterward, Ms. Assange, who married Mr. Assange after joining his legal team fighting extradition efforts to Sweden, told supporters gathered outside the court in central London that the case should be dropped.

“The Biden administration should distance itself from this shameful prosecution,” said Ms. Assange, who secretly began a relationship with Mr. Assange while he was living in the Ecuadorian embassy. The couple has two young sons.

Mr Assange has rarely been seen in public as his case winds its way through the courts, citing health problems. In 2021, Mr. Assange suffered a mild stroke in prison. He did not attend the May hearing for unknown health reasons. Ms Assange said in another video posted on social media early on Tuesday and taken outside Belmarsh prison last week that developments had moved very quickly.

“I am now confident that this period of our lives is over,” she said. “What begins now, with Julian’s freedom, is a new chapter.”

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2024-06-25 06:35:08