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Article: WikiLeaks' Assange to be freed after US espionage charge plea deal

WikiLeaks' Assange to be freed after US espionage charge plea deal

WikiLeaks' Assange to be freed after US espionage charge plea deal

PHOTO CAPTION: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange looks out a plane window as he approaches Bangkok airport for layover, according to the post by Wikileaks on X, in this picture released to social media on June 25, 2024. Wikileaks via X/via REUTERS

 

 

By Alasdair Pal and Sarah N. Lynch

SYDNEY/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is due to plead guilty on Wednesday to violating U.S. espionage law, in a deal that will set him free after a 14-year British legal odyssey and allow his return home to Australia.

Assange, 52, has agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified U.S. national defence documents, according to filings in the U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

The deal marks the end of a legal saga that has seen Assange spend more than five years in a British high-security jail and seven holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London as he fought accusations of sex crimes in Sweden and battled extradition to the U.S., where he faced 18 criminal charges.

The U.S. government viewed him as a reckless villain who had endangered the lives of agents through WikiLeaks' mass release of secret U.S. documents - the largest security breaches of their kind in U.S. military history.

But to free press advocates and his supporters, which includes world leaders, celebrities and some prominent journalists, he is a hero for exposing wrongdoing and alleged war crimes, and was persecuted for embarrassing U.S. authorities.

On Wednesday, Assange is due to be sentenced to 62 months of time already served at a hearing in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, at 9 a.m. local time (2300 GMT Tuesday).

The U.S. territory in the Pacific was chosen due to Assange's opposition to travelling to the mainland U.S. and for its proximity to Australia, prosecutors said.

Australian-born Assange left Belmarsh maximum security jail in the early hours of Monday, before being bailed by the London High Court and later boarding a flight, his wife, Stella Assange said. He was currently on a stopover in Bangkok, she said.

"I feel elated," Stella, who flew to Australia from London on Sunday with the couple's two children, told Reuters.

"I also feel worried ... Until it's fully signed off, I worry, but it looks like we've got there."

A video posted on X by Wikileaks showed Assange dressed in a blue shirt and jeans signing a document before boarding a private jet. After the hearing in Saipan, Assange will fly to Canberra where he will arrive on Wednesday, his wife said.

He had recently won permission to appeal against the approval of his U.S. extradition and the case was due to be heard at London's High Court next month, a factor that Stella Assange said helped galvanise talks over a deal.

'TOO LONG'

The Australian government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, has been pressing U.S. President Joe Biden for Assange's release but declined to comment on the legal proceedings as they were ongoing.

"There is nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia," Albanese said in the country's parliament.

WikiLeaks came to prominence in 2010 after it released hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. military documents on Washington's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq along with swaths of diplomatic cables.

The trove of more than 700,000 documents included battlefield accounts such as a 2007 video of a U.S. Apache helicopter firing at suspected insurgents in Iraq, killing a dozen people including two Reuters news staff. That video was released in 2010.

"Julian Assange endangered the lives of our troops in a time of war and should have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," said Mike Pence, who served as U.S. Vice President under Donald Trump when the charges were brought against Assange.

"The Biden administration’s plea deal with Assange is a miscarriage of justice and dishonors the service and sacrifice of the men and women of our Armed Forces and their families," he said on X.

The charges against Assange sparked outrage among his many global supporters who have long argued that as the publisher of Wikileaks he should not face charges typically used against federal government employees who steal or leak information.

Many press freedom advocates have argued that criminally charging Assange is a threat to free speech and journalism.

Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of Britain's Guardian newspaper, one of the global titles which worked with WikiLeaks to publish some of the leaked material, said it was "pretty disturbing" that espionage laws were being used to target those who revealed uncomfortable information for states.

Stella Assange said the U.S. government should have dropped the case against her husband altogether.

"We will be seeking a pardon, obviously, but the fact that there is a guilty plea, under the Espionage Act, in relation to obtaining and disclosing national defence information is obviously a very serious concern for journalists," she said.

SWEDISH ALLEGATIONS

Assange was first arrested in Britain in 2010 on a European arrest warrant after Swedish authorities said they wanted to question him over sex-crime allegations that were later dropped. He fled to Ecuador's embassy, where he remained for seven years, to avoid extradition to Sweden.

He and Stella, a lawyer who worked on his case, had two children during his time there. He was dragged out of the embassy in 2019 after Ecuador withdrew his asylum status.

He was jailed for skipping bail and has been in Belmarsh ever since, latterly fighting extradition to the United States.

"Millions of people who have been advocating for Julian, it is almost time for them to have a drink and a celebration," his brother Gabriel Shipton told Reuters from France.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Andrew Goudsward and Kanishka Singh in Washington, Michael Holden and Kate Holton in London, Lisa Barrington in Seoul and Alasdair Pal, Kirsty Needham and Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Scott Malone, Matthew Lewis, Sonali Paul, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Alexandra Hudson)

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