Wikileaks founder Assange leaves UK after reaching plea deal to avoid prison in US

Australian to appear in court in US territory Saipan, plead guilty to conspiracy to obtain and disseminate national defense information; 5-year sentence will equal time served

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange being taken from court, where he appeared on charges of jumping British bail seven years ago, in London, on May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange being taken from court, where he appeared on charges of jumping British bail seven years ago, in London, on May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

BANGKOK (AFP) — Julian Assange has been released from prison and left Britain, WikiLeaks said, as he reached a landmark plea deal with US authorities that brought an end to his years-long legal drama.

“Julian Assange is free,” WikiLeaks wrote on X of its founder, who had been detained in Britain for five years as he fought extradition to the United States which sought to prosecute him for revealing military secrets.

He has agreed to plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to obtain and disseminate national defense information, according to a document filed in court in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific.

A charter plane flew Assange, 52, from London to Bangkok, where it had been scheduled to stop for refueling.

AFP journalists saw it touch down at Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport at around 12:30 pm (0530 GMT).

From there it is scheduled to fly to Saipan, capital of the US territory where Assange will appear in court on Wednesday morning.

An airplane (C) that carried Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is pictured on the tarmac at Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok on June 25, 2024 (MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP)

Assange is expected to be sentenced to five years and two months in prison, with credit for the same amount of time spent behind bars in Britain.

This means he could return to his native Australia, where the government said his case had “dragged on for too long” and there was “nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration.”

The publisher was wanted by Washington for publishing hundreds of thousands of secret US documents from 2010 as head of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.

Since then Assange became a hero to free speech campaigners and a villain to those who thought he endangered US security and intelligence sources.

A man walks past a mural of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on George Street in the central business district of Sydney on June 25, 2024 (Saeed KHAN / AFP)

US authorities wanted to put Assange on trial for divulging military secrets about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Assange was indicted by a US federal grand jury in 2019 on 18 counts stemming from WikiLeaks’ publication of a trove of national security documents.

Former vice president Mike Pence slammed the plea deal on X as a “miscarriage of justice” that “dishonors the service and sacrifice of the men and women of our Armed Forces.”

Extradition battle

WikiLeaks released a short video of Assange speaking with people in what appeared to be an office and then boarding a plane.

Assange’s family expressed deep gratitude for his freedom, including his mother Christine Assange who said in a statement carried by Australian media that she was “grateful that my son’s ordeal is finally coming to an end.”

His wife Stella meanwhile thanked campaigners, writing on X that “words cannot express our immense gratitude.”

Assange met his wife while he was holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy, then married her in a ceremony in prison. They now have two young children.

Announcement of the deal came two weeks before Assange was scheduled to appear in court in Britain to appeal a ruling approving his extradition to the United States.

Assange had been detained in the high-security Belmarsh prison in London since April 2019.

A Julian Assange supporters shout out their support for him as they hold onto a banner outside the Old Bailey in London, Jan. 4, 2021 .(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

He was arrested after spending seven years in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced accusations of sexual assault that were eventually dropped.

The material he released included video showing civilians being killed by fire from a US helicopter gunship in Iraq in 2007. The victims included two Reuters journalists.

The United States has accused Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act. Supporters have warned this means he could be sentenced to 175 years in prison.

The British government approved his extradition in June 2022.

In the latest twist to the saga, two British judges said in May that he could appeal against his extradition to the United States.

The appeal was to address the question of whether, as a foreigner on trial in America, he would enjoy the protections of freedom of speech accorded under the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

The plea deal was not entirely unexpected. President Joe Biden had been under growing pressure to drop the long-running case against Assange.

In February the Australian government made an official request to this effect and Biden said he would consider it, raising hopes among Assange supporters that his ordeal might end.

Emma Shortis, senior researcher at The Australia Institute think tank, told AFP that both Canberra and Washington had a “recognition that this had to end.”

“There was just no way this wasn’t becoming an issue for the (US-Australia) alliance,” Shortis said.

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