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Julian Assange Freed From UK Prison, Returns To Australia After 12 Years

Julian Assange Freed From UK Prison, Returns To Australia After 12 Years

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is expected to plead guilty on Wednesday to violating US espionage laws, marking the conclusion of a 14-year legal journey and allowing him to return home to Australia. Assange, 52, has agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified US national defense documents, as detailed in court filings for the US District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

At a hearing scheduled in Saipan, Assange is set to receive a sentence of 62 months, accounting for time already served. Saipan was chosen due to Assange’s aversion to traveling to the mainland US and its proximity to Australia, according to prosecutors.

Read more: Lawyer reveals Dr. Aafia Siddiqui being subjected to sexual harassment in US prison as punishment again

Assange departed Belmarsh prison in the UK on Monday following bail from the UK High Court and boarded a flight that afternoon, according to a statement by WikiLeaks on social media platform X.

“This outcome is the culmination of a global campaign involving grassroots organizers, press freedom advocates, lawmakers, and leaders spanning various political spectrums, including support from the United Nations,” the statement noted.

A video posted on X by WikiLeaks showed Assange in a blue shirt and jeans signing documents before boarding a VistaJet private jet. Following the Saipan hearing, he intends to return to Australia, as confirmed by WikiLeaks.

“Julian is free!!!!” exclaimed his wife, Stella Assange, in a post on X, expressing gratitude to supporters.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s government has advocated for Assange’s release but refrained from commenting on ongoing legal proceedings.

A spokesperson for Assange in Australia declined to comment on flight arrangements, while requests for comment from VistaJet were unanswered at the time.

Significant transformations

In 2010, WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of classified US military documents detailing Washington’s operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, marking the largest breaches of US military secrecy to date. These disclosures also included extensive diplomatic cables.

During former President Donald Trump’s administration, Julian Assange was indicted for WikiLeaks’ extensive release of classified US documents, which were originally leaked by Chelsea Manning, a former US military intelligence analyst. Manning herself was prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

Among the vast trove of over 700,000 documents were diplomatic communications and accounts from the battlefield, notably including a 2007 video showing a US Apache helicopter attacking suspected insurgents in Iraq, resulting in the deaths of twelve individuals, including two Reuters journalists. This video was made public in 2010.

The charges against Assange ignited global outrage from his supporters, who argue that as WikiLeaks’ publisher, he should not be prosecuted using laws typically applied to government employees who leak or steal classified information.

Many advocates for press freedom contend that prosecuting Assange poses a significant threat to free speech.

“A plea deal would prevent the worst-case scenario for press freedom, but this agreement means Assange would have served five years in prison for activities that journalists engage in routinely,” remarked Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “This outcome could have far-reaching implications for essential journalism, not only in the United States but worldwide.”

Extended journey

Assange was initially arrested in the UK in 2010 under a European arrest warrant issued by Swedish authorities investigating sex-crime allegations, which were later withdrawn. He sought refuge in Ecuador’s embassy, where he stayed for seven years to avoid extradition to Sweden.

In 2019, he was forcefully removed from the embassy and imprisoned in London for violating bail conditions. Since then, he has been held in Belmarsh, a high-security jail, contesting extradition to the US for nearly five years.

His time in Belmarsh, spanning five years, is comparable to the prison term served by Reality Winner, a former Air Force veteran and intelligence contractor, who received a 63-month sentence for leaking classified documents to a news outlet.

During his tenure at Belmarsh, Assange married his partner Stella, with whom he had two children while residing in the Ecuadorian embassy.