News Brief

Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange Freed After Pleading Guilty To Espionage In US Court

Kuldeep Negi

Jun 26, 2024, 10:53 AM | Updated 10:53 AM IST

Julian Assange
Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was released by a court on the US Pacific island territory of Saipan on Wednesday (26 June) after pleading guilty to violating US espionage law.

This decision, part of a deal with the US, allows Assange to return home to Australia.

During the three-hour hearing, Assange, 52, admitted to conspiring to obtain and disclose classified US national defence documents.

He argued that he believed the First Amendment, which protects free speech, shielded his activities.

"Working as a journalist, I encouraged my source to provide information that was said to be classified in order to publish that information," Assange told the court.

"I believed the First Amendment protected that activity but I accept that it was ... a violation of the espionage statute," Assange added.

Chief US District Judge Ramona V Manglona accepted his guilty plea and ordered his release due to the time already served in a British jail.

Assange has left Saipan on a private jet, accompanied by Australia's ambassadors to the US and UK, according to flight logs.

They are scheduled to land early morning in Canberra.

Assange agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal count, as outlined in filings in the US District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

The US territory in the western Pacific was selected due to Assange's reluctance to travel to the mainland US and its proximity to Australia, prosecutors explained.

The hearing attracted dozens of media representatives from around the world, with many more gathered outside the courtroom.

Media were not permitted to film inside the courtroom.

"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," Stella Assange, the wife of the WikiLeaks founder, said on the social media platform X.

Assange, now 52, has been a contentious figure since WikiLeaks began publishing hundreds of thousands of classified US documents in 2010.

While he has been hailed as a champion of free speech by supporters, detractors argue that he jeopardised US national security and intelligence sources by disclosing sensitive information.

The US indicted Assange in 2019 on 18 counts related to WikiLeaks' publication of national security documents.

His legal battles have included efforts to avoid extradition to the US, where authorities sought to prosecute him for revealing military secrets about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Assange's plea bargain marks the end of a nearly 14-year saga.

He was initially detained in the high-security Belmarsh prison in London in April 2019, following his arrest after spending seven years in Ecuador's London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden on now-dropped sexual assault charges.

Among the leaked materials that brought Assange to prominence was a video showing civilians, including two Reuters journalists, being killed by fire from a US helicopter gunship in Iraq in 2007.

The US government had accused Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act, raising concerns among his supporters that he could face up to 175 years in prison.

Despite the British government approving his extradition in June 2022, Assange's legal team successfully secured the right to appeal the extradition decision in May.

The appeal was set to address whether Assange, as a foreigner on trial in the US, would be afforded the First Amendment protections of free speech. However, the plea deal has made this appeal unnecessary.

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Kuldeep is Senior Editor (Newsroom) at Swarajya. He tweets at @kaydnegi.

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