Crime and Courts

Julian Assange leaves jail on his way to enter plea deal with the U.S.

The WikiLeaks founder has been held in a British prison for the last five years and fought extradition to the U.S. He is expected to return to Australia.

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 WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was released from a British prison and on his way to a remote Pacific island on Tuesday where he will plead guilty to a conspiracy charge as part of a plea deal with the U.S. Justice Department, according to court documents.

The agreement will free Assange and end the yearslong legal battle over the publication of a trove of classified documents.

Assange was charged by criminal information — which typically signifies a plea deal — with conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information, the court documents said.

Wikileaks posted footage to X of Assange boarding a plane at Stanstead Airport near London at 5 p.m. (12 p.m. ET) on Monday.

A letter from Justice Department official Matthew McKenzie said Assange would appear in court in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S.-controlled territory north of Guam, at 9 a.m. local time Wednesday (7 p.m. ET Tuesday) to plead guilty.

A plane believed to be carrying Assange landed early Tuesday in the Thai capital Bangkok to refuel. He will later arrive for what could be a final court hearing after spending five years in a British jail.

The islands are 3,400 miles north of Australia, Assange's country of citizenship, where the Justice Department expects he will return following the proceedings.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said that "the case has dragged on for too long, there is nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia."

Assange's mother, Christine Assange, said in a statement widely reported by Australian media: "I am grateful that my son’s ordeal is finally coming to an end. This shows the importance and power of quiet diplomacy."

His wife, Stella Assange, is currently in Australia with the couple's two children, aged 5 and 7, waiting for his arrival, she told BBC Radio 4. "He will be a free man once it is signed off by a judge," she said, adding that she wasn't sure the deal would happen until the last 24 hours.

She said she was "elated."

U.S. charges against Assange stem from one of the largest publications of classified information in American history, which took place during President Barack Obama's first term.

Starting in late 2009, according to the government, Assange conspired with Chelsea Manning, a military intelligence analyst, to use his WikiLeaks website to disclose tens of thousands of activity reports about the war in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of reports about the war in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of State Department cables and assessment briefs of detainees at the U.S. detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Court documents revealing Assange's plea deal were filed Monday evening in U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands. Assange was expected to appear in that court and to be sentenced to 62 months, with credit for time served in British prison, meaning he would be free to return to Australia, where he was born.

“This was an independent decision made by the Department of Justice and there was no White House involvement in the plea deal decision,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement Monday evening.

Assange has been held in the high-security Belmarsh Prison in east London for five years, and he previously spent seven years in self-exile at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London — where he reportedly fathered two children — until his asylum was withdrawn and he was forcibly carried out of the embassy and arrested in April 2019. A superseding indictment was returned more than five years ago, in May 2019, and a second superseding indictment was returned in June 2020.

Assange has been fighting extradition for more than a decade: first in connection with a sex crimes case in Sweden, then in connection with the case against him in the United States.

In March, the High Court in London gave him permission for a full hearing on his appeal as he sought assurances that he could rely upon the First Amendment at a trial in the U.S. In May, two judges on the High Court said he could have a full hearing on whether he would be discriminated against in the U.S. because he is a foreign national. A hearing on the issue of Assange's free speech rights had been scheduled for July 9-10.

WikiLeaks also published hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee that upended the 2016 presidential race. Russian intelligence officers were subsequently indicted in connection with the hacking in 2018 in a case brought by then-special counsel Robert Mueller.

At a joint news conference with then-President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin days later, Trump contradicted the indictment and the intelligence community, saying Putin was "extremely strong and powerful in his denial" that Russians interfered in the 2016 election to help him win.

Manning was sentenced to 35 years in a military prison, but Obama commuted her sentence in the final days of his presidency in 2017. Manning was subsequently held in contempt of court for nearly a year after she refused to answer questions for a grand jury; she was then released after an attempted suicide.

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