Julian Assange, free after pleading guilty, set to return to Australia


SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands — Julian Assange, the founder of the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks, pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of violating the Espionage Act in a U.S. federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean, bringing an end to a years-long legal saga that spanned five countries.

Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona sentenced Assange, who had spent five years in a British prison before being released Monday, to time served after he cut a deal to admit to one felony count of violating the Espionage Act by publishing classified U.S. documents more than a decade ago.

He will now return to his native Australia, scheduled to arrive in the capital of Canberra on Wednesday night, with no conditions on his release.

The 52-year-old was wearing a dark suit and his wedding tie for his court appearance; he was accompanied by Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister who is now Australia’s ambassador to the United States, and Stephen Smith, Australia’s top envoy to London and a former foreign minister. Assange was represented in the hearing by his longtime attorney, Barry Pollack, and Richard Miller along with human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson.

Answering questions from the judge in the packed Saipan courtroom, Assange described himself as a “consultant, a journalist, a computer program, an editor” and a documentary producer. He then entered the guilty plea, his face expressionless and his hands folded at his waist.

Under questioning from the judge, Assange said he believed that as a journalist, his work should be protected by the First Amendment. He added that he considered the First Amendment and the Espionage Act contradictory to each other, prompting some interrogation by the judge and clarification from Assange’s attorney that his client was pleading guilty.

“Apparently it’s an early happy birthday to you,” the judge told Assange, who smiled and hugged his lawyers.

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The palm-fringed island of Saipan was an unusual location for the hearing, but Assange appeared here because he did not want to enter the continental United States, according to the Justice Department filing in the case.

While in Britain, Assange had sought to avoid extradition to the United States, with his lawyers arguing that he could not get a fair trial there and that his mental health was too fragile to withstand transfer to an American prison.

Assange left London on Monday on a chartered jet — one previously used by singer Taylor Swift — and stopped for refueling in Bangkok before arriving in Saipan just after 6 a.m. local time on Wednesday. Flightradar24, the airplane tracking site, said the jet was its most-tracked flight Tuesday.

WikiLeaks said Assange was not permitted to use commercial flights and is appealing to supporters to crowdfund the cost of chartering the jet, which exceeded half a million dollars. “We haven’t had much time to talk about the future — the first thing is that he will have to pay the Australian government $500,000 back for the chartered flights,” Assange’s wife, Stella Assange, told the BBC.

Stella Assange and their two children, aged 5 and 7, are waiting in Australia for Julian Assange’s return, but she had not told them that their father was due to be freed — only that there was “a big surprise” waiting for them in Australia, she told the BBC. They have never seen their father outside Belmarsh Prison, she said.

Assange’s priority was to “get healthy again,” be in touch with nature, and to have “time and privacy” as a family, Stella Assange said.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Tuesday that it was long past time that Assange was allowed to return home. “Regardless of the views that people have about Mr. Assange’s activities, the case has dragged on for too long,” Albanese said in the Australian parliament. “There is nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia.”

Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the organization gained widespread attention and Assange became internationally famous after leaks about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One leak from the time, dubbed “Collateral Murder” by WikiLeaks, showed a 2007 incident in which a dozen people, including two employees of the news agency Reuters, were fatally shot from a U.S. Army helicopter.

Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. soldier who had leaked hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks, was arrested in 2010. She was convicted at a court-martial of violating the Espionage Act, among other charges, and served almost seven of a 35 year sentence before President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017.

It was not the leaks but allegations of sexual assault that led to arrest warrants against Assange. In November 2010, Swedish authorities issued an international arrest warrant for him in connection with allegations of sexual assault lodged against him by two women. Assange denied the allegations, saying they were a pretext for him to be extradited to the United States because of his work on WikiLeaks.

To avoid being arrested, he sought political asylum in June 2012 at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he remained for almost seven years before the embassy revoked his status. British police arrested Assange at the embassy in 2019 “on behalf of the United States.”

He was arrested on charges of conspiring with Manning to hack classified U.S. military computers and obtain classified military and diplomatic documents for publication on WikiLeaks. The indictment was expanded that year to include 17 charges of violating the Espionage Act, which make it a felony to gather, transmit or communicate “national defense information” — generally understood to be classified information — without authorization.

Both Manning and Assange have contended that the disclosures in 2010 and 2011 — hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and documents about the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — were carried out in the public interest. During her trial, Manning said she had acted out of a desire to spark a national debate. Assange, for his part, contended the documents highlighted issues such as abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody, human rights violations and civilian deaths.

U.S. officials condemned the leaks as reckless, saying they harmed national security as well as endangered the lives of service members and informants.

Nakashima reported from Washington.





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