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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange freed in US plea deal

June 26, 2024

Julian Assange faced court in the Northern Mariana Islands where he pleaded guilty to violating the US Espionage Act. The plea deal ends a legal saga that lasted more than a decade.

Julian Assange outside court
Julian Assange left a US court and headed home to AustraliaImage: YUICHI YAMAZAKI/AFP/Getty Images

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange walked free on Wednesday after he pleaded guilty to a single felony charge for publishing military secrets in a US court.

Asked by the judge whether he would plead guilty or not guilty, Assange replied, "Guilty to the information."

The plea was part of a deal with US persecutors that concluded a drawn-out legal saga that raised divisive questions about press freedom and national security.

WikiLeaks' Assange's 14-year saga ends with US plea deal

"With this pronouncement, it appears that you will be able to walk out of this courtroom a free man," the judge said.

The US banned Assange from entering the country without prior approval as part of his plea deal.

"Pursuant to the plea agreement, Assange is prohibited from returning to the United States without permission," the Department of Justice said in a statement.

Julian Assange outside court
The court hearing brings a 14-year legal saga to a closeImage: Kim Hong-Ji/REUTERS

'Greatest threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century,' says lawyer

Assange's legal team hailed the news as he boarded a plane to the Australian capital, Canberra.

"Today is a historic day. It brings to an end 14 years of legal battles," lawyer Jen Robinson told reporters outside court.

"It also brings to an end a case which has been recognized as the greatest threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century."

Another lawyer, Barry Pollack, said that "the prosecution of Julian Assange is unprecedented in the 100 years of the Espionage Act, it has never been used by the United States to pursue a publisher, a journalist, like Mr Assange."

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Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also said Wednesday's plea hearing was a "welcome development."

"Given those proceedings that are happening literally in real time, it isn't appropriate to provide further commentary," Albanese told reporters.

What are the details of the plea deal?

The US indicted Assange on multiple counts of violating the Espionage Act after WikiLeaks published a trove of national security documents relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as well as diplomatic cables.

Under the deal, Assange pleaded guilty to one count of obtaining and publishing national defense documents. The US has dropped 17 other espionage charges against him.

Julian Assange in court in the Mariana Islands
Julian Assange pleaded guilty to one charge of obtaining and publishing US military secretsImage: Eugene Hoshiko/AP Photo/picture alliance

Assange arrived at the court on the US Pacific island territory of the Northern Mariana Islands after he was released from the UK's Belmarsh Prison on Monday.

The 52-year-old, wearing a black suit, smiled as he walked past security with his team and Australia's ambassador to Washington, Kevin Rudd.

He was sentenced to 62 months of time served in the UK.

As Assange entered the courtroom, WikiLeaks posted on social media that the private jet he arrived in he scheduled to depart for Canberra within hours.

The deal brings a close to a legal saga that spanned more than a decade, and which included seven years seeking asylum inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

Why was the case heard in the Northern Mariana Islands?

The Northern Mariana Islands is a remote US territory in the Pacific Ocean with a population of just 51,000 people.

Assange faced court in the territory's capital, Saipan.

According to court documents, the location was chosen "in light of the defendant's opposition to traveling to the continental United States" as well as its "proximity" to Australia, where he is set to return once the hearing has concluded.

Media outside the court in Saipan, the Northern Mariana Islands
Julian Assange faced court in Saipan, in part due to its proximity to AustraliaImage: Eugene Hoshiko/AP Photo/picture alliance

Reporters from around the world gathered outside the courtroom on Wednesday. The press, however, was not allowed inside the hearing.

"I watch this and think how overloaded his senses must be, walking through the press scrum after years of sensory deprivation and the four walls of his high security Belmarsh prison cell," Assange's wife, Stella, said on social media. 

What does the case mean for press freedom?

Talking to DW, Jameel Jaffer of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University said Assange's release, though a relief to both his supporters and the administration of US President Joe Biden, could have a wide-ranging impact on press freedom not just in the US but also abroad.

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"His deal included an admission of guilt to soliciting and publishing government secrets, the kind of things news organizations do every day," Jaffer said. 

"The legal question is can somebody be thrown in prison for asking government officials to share secrets and then publishing those," Jfaffer added. "And I think the answer to that has to be no. If it is not no, it's a real problem for journalists."

Germany's Scholz welcomes resolution of Assange case

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz welcomed Assange's release.

"The federal chancellor welcomes the resolution of this case and the fact that Mr. Assange is now free again," government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said in Berlin.

"This also shows that our constant insistence that there is proper jurisdiction and that judgements are also made according to the law in the UK has been justified," he said, adding that is "good news that Mr. Assange is finally out." 

"The court proceedings have dragged on for far too long," he said.

zc, ss/jsi (AP, AFP, Retuers)