Julian Assange secures release after plea deal with US government

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange agrees to a plea deal, leading to his release from Belmarsh Prison and highlighting the ongoing debates about press freedom and whistleblower prosecution.

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has reached a plea deal with the U.S. government, agreeing to plead guilty to one felony related to the disclosure of national security information. This agreement led to his release from Belmarsh Prison in the United Kingdom on Monday. The deal, which must still be approved by a judge, marks a significant development in Assange’s long-running legal battles and has profound implications for press freedom.

A related document was filed in federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth. Under the plea agreement, the Department of Justice (DOJ) will seek a 62-month sentence, equal to the time the 52-year-old Australian has already served in the U.K. prison while fighting extradition to the United States.

Assange faced the risk of spending the rest of his life in a U.S. prison if convicted on charges under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for publishing classified material, including the “Collateral Murder” video and the Afghan and Iraq war logs. Before his time in Belmarsh, he spent seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London under asylum protections.

WikiLeaks confirmed Assange’s release on the social media platform X, stating, “Julian Assange is free. He left Belmarsh Monday after having spent 1,901 days there, locked in a small cell for 23 hours a day.”

“He was granted bail by the High Court in London and was released at Stanstead Airport during the afternoon, where he boarded a plane and departed the U.K.,” WikiLeaks said. “This is the result of a global campaign that spanned grassroots organizers, press freedom campaigners, legislators, and leaders from across the political spectrum, all the way to the United Nations.”

“He will soon reunite with his wife Stella Assange, and their children, who have only known their father from behind bars,” the group continued. “WikiLeaks published groundbreaking stories of government corruption and human rights abuses, holding the powerful accountable for their actions. As editor-in-chief, Julian paid severely for these principles, and for the people’s right to know. As he returns to Australia, we thank all who stood by us, fought for us, and remained utterly committed in the fight for his freedom. Julian’s freedom is our freedom.”

The news of Assange’s release was celebrated by people around the world, who also blasted the U.S. for continuing to pursue charges against him and the U.K. for going along with it.

“Takeaway from the 12 years of Assange persecution: We need a world where independent journalists work in freedom and top war criminals go to prison—not the other way around,” the progressive advocacy group and longtime Assange supporter RootsAction said on social media.

Seth Stern, advocacy director at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said that “it’s good news that the DOJ is putting an end to this embarrassing saga. But it’s alarming that the Biden administration felt the need to extract a guilty plea for the purported crime of obtaining and publishing government secrets.”

“That’s what investigative journalists do every day,” Stern noted. “The plea deal won’t have the precedential effect of a court ruling, but it will still hang over the heads of national security reporters for years to come. The deal doesn’t add any more prison time or punishment for Assange. It’s purely symbolic.”

“The administration could’ve easily just dropped the case but chose to instead legitimize the criminalization of routine journalistic conduct and encourage future administrations to follow suit,” he added. “And they made that choice knowing that [former U.S. President] Donald Trump would love nothing more than to find a way to throw journalists in jail.”

Leftist Colombian President Gustavo Petro said in a statement: “I congratulate Julian Assange on his freedom. Assange’s eternal imprisonment and torture was an attack on press freedom on a global scale. Denouncing the massacre of civilians in Iraq by the U.S. war machine was his ‘crime’; now the massacre is repeated in Gaza I invite Julian and his wife Stella to visit Colombia and let’s take action for true freedom.”

Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt, who represents Melbourne in Parliament, said on social media that “Julian Assange will finally be free. While great news, this has been over a decade of his life wasted by U.S. overreach.”

“Journalism is not a crime,” Bandt added. “Pursuing Assange was anti-democratic, anti-press freedom, and the charges should have been dropped.”

The women-led peace group CodePink said in a statement:

Without Julian Assange’s critical journalism, the world would know a lot less about war crimes committed by the United States and its allies. He is the reason so many anti-war organizations like ours have the proof we need to fight the war machine in the belly of the beast. CodePink celebrates Julian’s release and commends his brave journalism.

One of the most horrific videos published by WikiLeaks was called “Collateral Murder,” footage of the U.S. military opening fire on a group of unarmed civilians—including Reuters journalists.

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