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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

WikiLeaks’ Assange set to be freed after pleading guilty to US espionage charge

“Julian Assange is free,” WikiLeaks said in a statement on X.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been freed from prison in the United Kingdom and is travelling home to Australia after he agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of breaching the espionage law in the United States.

Assange, 52, will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to obtain and disclose classified US national defence documents, according to a filing in the US District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

He was freed from the UK’s high-security Belmarsh prison on Monday and taken to the airport, from where he flew out of the country. Assange will appear at a court in Saipan, a US Pacific territory, at 9am on Wednesday (23:00 GMT on Tuesday), where he will be sentenced to 62 months of the time already served.

“Julian Assange is free,” WikiLeaks said in a statement on X.

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“He left Belmarsh maximum security prison on the morning of 24 June, after having spent 1901 days there. He was granted bail by the High Court in London and was released at Stansted airport during the afternoon, where he boarded a plane and departed the UK.”

A video posted on X by WikiLeaks showed Assange dressed in a blue shirt and jeans signing a document before boarding a private jet.

He will return to Australia after the hearing, the WikiLeaks statement added, referring to the hearing in Saipan.

The plane carrying Assange landed in Bangkok on Tuesday to refuel before flying the WikiLeaks founder to the US territory.

Julian Assange’s wife Stella said she was “elated” and it was “incredible” that her husband was set to be freed.

“I’m just elated,” she said on Tuesday, speaking from Australia.

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“He will be a free man once it has been signed off by the judge and that will happen sometime tomorrow.”

Assange rose to prominence with the launch of WikiLeaks in 2006, creating an online whistleblower platform for people to submit classified material such as documents and videos anonymously.

Footage of a US Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad, which killed a dozen people, including two journalists, raised the platform’s profile, while the 2010 release of hundreds of thousands of classified US documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a trove of diplomatic cables, cemented its reputation.

‘Holding the powerful accountable’

WikiLeaks published material about many countries, but it was the US, during the administration of former President Donald Trump, that decided to charge him in 2019 with 17 counts of breaching the Espionage Act.

US lawyers had argued he conspired with Chelsea Manning, a former army intelligence analyst, who spent seven years in prison for leaking material to WikiLeaks. She was freed when President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017.

The charges led to outrage, with Assange’s supporters arguing that, as the publisher and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, he should not have faced charges usually used against government employees who steal or leak information.

Press freedom advocates, meanwhile, argued that criminally charging Assange was a threat to free speech.

“WikiLeaks published groundbreaking stories of government corruption and human rights abuses, holding the powerful accountable for their actions,” WikiLeaks said in its statement announcing the plea deal.

“As editor-in-chief, Julian paid severely for these principles, and for the people’s right to know. As he returns to Australia, we thank all who stood by us, fought for us, and remained utterly committed in the fight for his freedom.”