WikiLeaks’ Assange To Be Freed After Pleading Guilty To US Espionage Charge

WikiLeaks' Assange Espionage Charge

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange plans to plead guilty on Wednesday to violating U.S. espionage law, marking the end of his imprisonment in Britain and allowing his return to Australia, concluding a 14-year legal odyssey.

Assange, 52, agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified U.S. national defense documents, according to filings in the U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands. He will be sentenced to 62 months of time already served at a hearing in Saipan at 9 a.m. local time on Wednesday (2300 GMT Tuesday). Prosecutors chose the island in the Pacific due to Assange’s opposition to traveling to the mainland U.S. and its proximity to Australia.

On Monday, Assange left Belmarsh prison in the UK after the UK High Court granted him bail. He boarded a flight that afternoon, according to a statement by WikiLeaks posted on social media platform X. “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,” the statement said.

A video posted on X by WikiLeaks showed Assange, dressed in a blue shirt and jeans, signing a document before boarding a private jet marked with the logo of charter firm VistaJet. After the hearing in Saipan, he will return to Australia, the WikiLeaks statement added. “Julian is free!!!!” his wife, Stella Assange, exclaimed in a post on X. “Words cannot express our immense gratitude to YOU – yes YOU, who have all mobilized for years and years to make this come true.”

FlightRadar24 data shows the only VistaJet plane that departed Stansted on Monday afternoon headed to Bangkok. A spokesperson for Assange in Australia declined to comment on his flight plans, and VistaJet did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Australian government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, has been pressing for Assange’s release but declined to comment on the ongoing legal proceedings. “Prime Minister Albanese has been clear – Mr. Assange’s case has dragged on for too long, and there is nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration,” a government spokesperson said.

WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. military documents in 2010, detailing Washington’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, marking the largest security breaches of their kind in U.S. military history. The indictment against Assange came during former President Donald Trump’s administration over WikiLeaks’ mass release of secret U.S. documents leaked by Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. military intelligence analyst.

The trove of over 700,000 documents included diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts, such as a 2007 video showing a U.S. Apache helicopter firing at suspected insurgents in Iraq, killing a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff. WikiLeaks released the video in 2010.

The charges against Assange sparked outrage among his global supporters, who argue that Assange, as the publisher of WikiLeaks, should not face charges typically used against federal government employees who steal or leak information. Many press freedom advocates believe that criminally charging Assange represents a threat to free speech. “A plea deal would avert the worst-case scenario for press freedom, but this deal contemplates that Assange will have served five years in prison for activities that journalists engage in every day,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “It will cast a long shadow over the most important kinds of journalism, not just in this country but around the world.”

Authorities first arrested Assange in Britain in 2010 on a European arrest warrant after Swedish authorities sought to question him over sex-crime allegations that were later dropped. To avoid extradition to Sweden, Assange fled to Ecuador’s embassy, where he remained for seven years. In 2019, authorities dragged him out of the embassy and jailed him for skipping bail. He has since been in London’s Belmarsh top-security jail, where he has fought extradition to the United States for almost five years.

These five years of confinement are similar to the sentence imposed on Reality Winner, an Air Force veteran and former intelligence contractor, who received 63 months for removing classified materials and mailing them to a news outlet. While in Belmarsh, Assange married his partner Stella, with whom he had two children during his time at the Ecuadorian embassy.