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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange will plead guilty in deal with US, return to Australia

Jun 24, 2024, 4:21 PM | Updated: 6:15 pm

Image: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange Julian Assange greets supporters outside the Ecuadorian emb...

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange Julian Assange greets supporters outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, May 19, 2017. (File photo: Frank Augstein, AP)

(File photo: Frank Augstein, AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will free him from prison and resolve a long-running legal saga that spanned multiple continents and centered on the publication of a trove of classified documents, according to court papers filed late Monday.

Assange is scheduled to appear in the federal court in the Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Western Pacific, to plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defense information, the Justice Department said in a letter filed in court.

The guilty plea, which must be approved by a judge, brings an abrupt conclusion to a criminal case of international intrigue and to the U.S. government’s years-long pursuit of a publisher whose hugely popular secret-sharing website made him a cause célèbre among many press freedom advocates who said he acted as a journalist to expose U.S. military wrongdoing. Investigators, by contrast, have repeatedly asserted that his actions broke laws meant to protect sensitive information and put the country’s national security at risk.

He is expected to return to Australia after his plea and sentencing, which is scheduled for Wednesday morning, local time in Saipan, the largest island in the Mariana Islands. The hearing is taking place there because of Assange’s opposition to traveling to the continental U.S. and the court’s proximity to Australia.

Assange’s U.S. attorney, Barry Pollack, did not immediately return messages seeking comment Monday.

The deal ensures that Assange will admit guilt while also sparing him from any additional prison time. He had spent years hiding out in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after Swedish authorities sought his arrest on rape allegations before being locked up in the United Kingdom.

Prosecutors have agreed to a sentence of the five years Assange has already spent in a high-security British prison while fighting to avoid extradition to the U.S. to face charges, a process that has played out in a series of hearings in London. Last month, he won the right to appeal an extradition order after his lawyers argued that the U.S. government provided “blatantly inadequate” assurances that he would have the same free speech protections as an American citizen if extradited from Britain.

He is expected to return to Australia after his plea and sentencing, which is scheduled for Wednesday morning, local time in Saipan, the largest island in the Mariana Islands. The hearing is taking place there because of Assange’s opposition to traveling to the continental U.S. and the court’s proximity to Australia.

Assange has been heralded by many around the world as a hero who brought to light military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the files published by WikiLeaks was a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

But his reputation was also tarnished by rape allegations, which he has denied.

The Justice Department’s indictment unsealed in 2019 accused Assange of encouraging and helping U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks published in 2010. Prosecutors had accused Assange of damaging national security by publishing documents that harmed the U.S. and its allies and aided its adversaries.

The case was lambasted by press advocates and Assange supporters. Federal prosecutors defended it as targeting conduct that went way beyond that of a journalist gathering information, amounting to an attempt to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified government documents. It was brought even though the Obama administration Justice Department had passed on prosecuting him years earlier.

The plea agreement comes months after President Joe Biden said he was considering a request from Australia to drop the U.S. push to prosecute Assange.

Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act and other offenses for leaking classified government and military documents to WikiLeaks. President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017, allowing her release after about seven behind bars.

Assange made headlines in 2016 after his website published Democratic emails that prosecutors say were stolen by Russian intelligence operatives. He was never charged in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, but the inquiry laid bare in stark detail the role that the hacking operation played in interfering in that year’s election on behalf of then-Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Justice Department officials mulled charges for Assange following the documents’ 2010 publication, but were unsure a case would hold up in court and were concerned it could be hard to justify prosecuting him for acts similar to those of a conventional journalist.

The posture changed in the Trump administration, however, with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 calling Assange’s arrest a priority.

Assange’s family and supporters have said his physical and mental health have suffered during more than a decade of legal battles, which includes seven years spent inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 and was granted political asylum after courts in England ruled he should be extradited to Sweden as part of a rape investigation in the Scandinavian country. He was arrested by British police after Ecuador’s government withdrew his asylum status in 2019 and then jailed for skipping bail when he first took shelter inside the embassy.

Although Sweden eventually dropped its sex crimes investigation because so much time had elapsed, Assange has remained in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison during the extradition battle with the U.S.

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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange will plead guilty in deal with US, return to Australia