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Assange to plead guilty, return to Australia, after US deal

June 25, 2024

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange agrees to plead guilty to espionage under a deal with the United States. He is on his way to Australia after 62 months in a UK jail.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange walks to board a plane
Assange is en route to a courtroom in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana IslandsImage: @wikileaks" via X/Handout via REUTERS

Julian Assange will plead guilty to violating US espionage laws in a deal with the Justice Department that will see him return to his home country of Australia.

WikiLeaks said Tuesday that Assange had left Belmarsh Prison, where he had been detained for five years, and had flown out of the UK.

Julian Assange leaves UK, agrees to plea deal

"This is the result of a global campaign that spanned grassroots organizers, press freedom campaigners, legislators and leaders from across the political spectrum, all the way to the United Nations," WikiLeaks said on social media.

"This created the space for a long period of negotiations with the US Department of Justice, leading to a deal that has not yet been formally finalized."

Later on Tuesday morning, the plane carrying Assange landed in Bangkok to refuel, before it was due to fly the WikiLeaks founder to his court hearing in the North Mariana Islands, a US territory in the Pacific.

Australian PM wants Assange to come home

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese welcomed the news in an address to the parliament on Tuesday, saying he wanted Assange brought back home as soon as possible.

Albanese said that, regardless of people's views on Assange's activities, "the case has dragged on for too long." 

"There is nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia."

Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese welcomes Julian Assange release

Albanese added that the government has continued to provide consular assistance to Assange. He described the proceedings of the deal as "crucial" and "delicate."

What do we know about the deal?

Assange is due to appear before court in the US territory of the Northern Mariana Islands on Wednesday.

In documents filed late on Monday, prosecutors said Assange will plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to obtain and disseminate national defense information.

He is due to be sentenced to 62 months of time that he has already served in the United Kingdom.

A marathon legal battle

Assange founded Wikileaks in 2006. Four years later, the website released hundreds of thousands of classified US military documents on Washington's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a trove of diplomatic cables, provided by Chelsea Manning.

In 2010, Swedish authorities issued an arrest warrant for Assange over rape allegations, which he denied. Assange was arrested in the UK after presenting to police, and granted bail.

Starting in 2012, the Australian whistleblower spent seven years in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in order to avoid arrest over the rape investigation, which he feared could lead to him being extradited to the US on espionage charges. The Swedish investigation was later dropped.

A protest to free Julian Assange
Activists had been demanding Assange's freedom for more than a decadeImage: Peter Nicholls/Getty Images

In 2019, Assange was expelled from the Ecuadorean Embassy and was sent to the UK's Belmarsh Prison.

Later that year, the US Justice Department unsealed indictments against Assange, charging him with violating the Espionage Act. 

A spokesperson for the Australian government said Tuesday that the Assange case "has dragged on for too long and there is nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration."

Assange family welcomes release

Assange's loved ones thanked those who were involved in the plea deal.

"I am grateful that my son's ordeal is finally coming to an end. This shows the importance and power of quiet diplomacy," his mother Christine said in a statement carried by Australian media.

His wife, Stella, also welcomed the news that he had been released from custody in the UK.

"Words cannot express our immense gratitude" to everyone who called for Assange's release, she said on social media.

Australians relieved over Assange's release: Journalist Joel Dullroy

RSF calls for 'urgent reform' to US Espionage Act

Rebecca Vincent, the Director of Campaigns for the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told DW that Assange "should never have spent a single day" in prison. 

"He's been arbitrarily deprived of his liberty for more than 13 years. So this is a very long time coming, but a huge relief to those of us who have campaigned so long for exactly this outcome," Vincent said. 

Vincent also alleged that the US was abusing its own espionage laws to seek Assange's arrest, characterizing his work with WikiLeaks as "journalistic" in nature. 

"We don't believe anybody should face such treatment for so long, more than a decade for publishing information in the public interest. So the way that this was done leaves some room for concern. We also remain worried about the possible use of the US Espionage Act against others in this way. So this is one next step — that law actually needs urgent reform. It was not intended to be used to target journalistic activity like this, but we have seen that it can be so," she said.

zc/jsi (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)