POLITICS

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange stops in Bangkok on his way to a US court and later freedom

Jun 24, 2024, 10:33 PM | Updated: Jun 25, 2024, 8:40 pm

BANGKOK (AP) — A plane carrying Julian Assange landed Tuesday in Bangkok for refueling, as the WikiLeaks founder was on his way to enter a plea deal with the U.S. government that will free him and resolve the legal case that spanned years and continents over the publication of a trove of classified documents.

A chartered flight from London that Assange’s wife, Stella, confirmed was carrying her husband landed at Don Mueang International Airport. Officials there told The Associated Press the plane was scheduled to continue on to Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific, where Assange is expected to appear in court on Wednesday.

He’s expected to plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defense information, according to the U.S. Justice Department in a letter filed in court.

Assange is expected to return to his home country of Australia after his plea and sentencing. The hearing is taking place in Saipan because of Assange’s opposition to traveling to the continental U.S. and the court’s proximity to Australia, prosecutors said.

British judicial officials confirmed that Assange left the U.K. on Monday evening after being granted bail at a secret hearing last week.

“Thirteen-and-a-half years and two extradition requests after he was first arrested, Julian Assange left the U.K. yesterday, following a bail hearing last Thursday, held in private at his request,” said Stephen Parkinson, the chief prosecutor for England and Wales.

The plea deal brings an abrupt conclusion to a criminal case of international intrigue and to the U.S. government’s yearslong 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. U.S. prosecutors, in contrast, have repeatedly asserted that his actions broke the law and put the country’s national security at risk.

Stella Assange told the BBC from Australia that it had been “touch and go” over the past 72 hours whether the deal would go ahead but she felt “elated” at the news. A lawyer who married the WikiLeaks founder in prison in 2022, she said details of the agreement would be made public once the judge had signed off on it.

“He will be a free man once it is signed off by a judge,” she said, adding that she still didn’t think it was real.

She posted on the social media platform X that Assange will owe $520,000 to the Australian government for the charter flight, and asked for donations to help pay for it.

Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, said the deal for Assange came about after the growing involvement of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

“This is the result of a long, long process which has been going on for some time. It has been a tough battle, but the focus now is on Julian being reunited with his family,” Hrafnsson told the PA news agency.

In a statement posted on the social media platform X, WikiLeaks said Assange boarded a plane after leaving the high-security London prison where he has spent the last five years. WikiLeaks applauded the announcement of the deal, saying it was grateful for “all who stood by us, fought for us, and remained utterly committed in the fight for his freedom.”

Albanese told Parliament that an Australian envoy had flown with Assange from London.

“Regardless of the views that people have about Mr. Assange’s activities, the case has dragged on for too long,” Albanese said. “There’s nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia.”

The deal ensures that Assange will admit guilt while also sparing him additional prison time. He is expected to be sentenced to the five years he has already spent in the British prison while fighting 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.

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 the 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.

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. The White House was not involved in the decision to resolve Assange’s case, according to a White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Assange made headlines again 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.

During the Obama administration, Justice Department officials mulled charges for Assange 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.

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

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

___

Tucker reported from Fort Pierce, Florida, and Durkin Richer from Washington. Associated Press writers Colleen Long in Washington, Napat Kongsawad and David Rising in Bangkok, Jill Lawless and Brian Melley in London and Rod McGuirk in Melbourne, Australia, contributed to this report.

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