WikiLeaks Julian Assange pleads guilty in US court, secures freedom

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange Assange pleaded guilty in a US court in Saipan on Wednesday, AFP reporters said, in a plea bargain that will leave him a free man after years of legal drama.

The 52-year-old admitted to a single count of conspiracy to obtain and disseminate national defence information in the courtroom in the Northern Mariana Islands, a Pacific US territory.

“Guilty to the information,” Assange said, later joking to the judge during the proceedings that whether he is satisfied “depends on the outcome of the hearing”.

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Assange has long been wanted by Washington for releasing hundreds of thousands of secret US documents from 2010 as head of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.

He was released Monday from a high-security British prison where he had been held for five years while he fought extradition to the United States.

On Wednesday, he is expected to be sentenced to five years and two months in prison, with credit for the same amount of time he spent behind bars in Britain.

Assange’s wife Stella said he would be a “free man”, thanking supporters who have campaigned for his release.

“We weren’t really sure until the last 24 hours that it was actually happening,” she told BBC radio, saying she was “just elated”.

The Northern Mariana Islands was chosen because of Assange’s unwillingness to go to the continental United States and because of its proximity to Australia, a court filing said.

After the hearing is done, Assange will fly to Canberra in Australia, WikiLeaks said on social media platform X, adding that the plea bargain “should never have had to happen.”

The Australian government said his case had “dragged on for too long” and there was “nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration”.

End of an ordeal

Since 2010 Assange has become a hero to free speech campaigners and a villain to those who thought he had endangered US security and intelligence sources.

US authorities wanted to put Assange on trial for divulging military secrets about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He was indicted by a US federal grand jury in 2019 on 18 counts stemming from WikiLeaks’ publication of a trove of national security documents.

The United Nations hailed Assange’s release, saying the case had raised “a series of human rights concerns”.

Assange’s mother Christine Assange said in a statement carried by Australian media that she was “grateful that my son’s ordeal is finally coming to an end.”

But former US vice president Mike Pence slammed the plea deal on X as a “miscarriage of justice” that “dishonors the service and sacrifice of the men and women of our Armed Forces.”

The announcement of the deal came two weeks before Assange was scheduled to appear in court in Britain to appeal against a ruling that approved his extradition to the United States.

Extradition battle

Assange had been detained in the high-security Belmarsh prison in London since April 2019.

He was arrested after spending seven years in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced accusations of sexual assault that were eventually dropped.

The material he released through WikiLeaks included video showing civilians being killed by fire from a US helicopter gunship in Iraq in 2007. The victims included a photographer and a driver from Reuters.

The United States accused Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act and supporters warned he risked being sentenced to 175 years in prison.

The British government approved his extradition in June 2022 but, in a recent twist, two British judges said in May that he could appeal against the transfer.

The plea deal was not entirely unexpected. US President Joe Biden had been under growing pressure to drop the long-running case against Assange.

The Australian government made an official request to that effect in February and Biden said he would consider it, raising hopes among Assange supporters that his ordeal might end.

In the first official US reax to the plea deal, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that as the case is about to go before a judge, “I think it’s appropriate for me to not comment on the matter at this time.”

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