Julian Assange, Founder, Wkikileaks, Pleads Guilty In US Court

Published on: June 26, 2024 08:14 IST

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange pleaded guilty in a US court in Saipan on Wednesday as part of a plea bargain that will see him released after years of legal battles, AFP reporters confirmed.

The 52-year-old Assange admitted to a single count of conspiracy to obtain and disseminate national defense information in the courtroom in the Northern Mariana Islands, a Pacific US territory.

“Guilty to the information,” Assange stated, later joking to the judge that his satisfaction “depends on the outcome of the hearing.” Assange has been sought by Washington for releasing hundreds of thousands of secret US documents in 2010 as head of WikiLeaks.

Assange was released Monday from a high-security British prison where he had been held for five years while fighting extradition to the United States.

On Wednesday, he is expected to be sentenced to five years and two months in prison, with credit for the time he spent behind bars in Britain.

Assange’s wife, Stella, expressed her relief and gratitude to supporters who campaigned for his release. “We weren’t really sure until the last 24 hours that it was actually happening,” she told BBC radio, saying she was “just elated.”

The Northern Mariana Islands was chosen for the proceedings due to Assange’s reluctance to go to the continental United States and its proximity to Australia, according to a court filing.

After the hearing, Assange will fly to Canberra, Australia, WikiLeaks announced on social media platform X, adding that the plea bargain “should never have had to happen.”

The Australian government commented that the case had “dragged on for too long” and that there was “nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration.”

End of an Ordeal

Since 2010, Assange has been seen as a hero by free speech campaigners and a villain by those who believed he endangered US security and intelligence sources.

US authorities sought to try Assange for disclosing military secrets related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was indicted by a US federal grand jury in 2019 on 18 counts related to WikiLeaks’ publication of national security documents.

The United Nations welcomed Assange’s release, noting that the case had raised “a series of human rights concerns.”

Assange’s mother, Christine Assange, expressed her gratitude that her son’s ordeal was finally ending. However, former US Vice President Mike Pence criticized the plea deal on X, calling it a “miscarriage of justice” that “dishonors the service and sacrifice of the men and women of our Armed Forces.”

The plea deal was announced two weeks before Assange was set to appear in a British court to appeal against a ruling approving his extradition to the United States.

Extradition Battle

Assange had been detained in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison since April 2019, after being arrested following seven years in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault accusations, which were eventually dropped.

The material Assange released via WikiLeaks included a video of civilians being killed by fire from a US helicopter gunship in Iraq in 2007, including a Reuters photographer and driver.

The United States charged Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act, and supporters warned he risked a 175-year prison sentence. The British government approved his extradition in June 2022, but two British judges allowed an appeal against the transfer in May.

The plea deal was not entirely unexpected, as US President Joe Biden faced increasing pressure to drop the case against Assange. The Australian government officially requested this in February, and Biden indicated he would consider it, raising hopes among Assange supporters.

In the first official US response to the plea deal, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller refrained from commenting on the case as it is about to go before a judge.

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