How Julian Assange walked out of U.S. court a ‘free man’

What was the deal with the U.S. government that secured Julian Assange’s release? What’s next for the WikiLeaks founder?

Updated - June 29, 2024 02:42 pm IST

Published - June 26, 2024 09:20 pm IST

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange embraces his wife Stella Assange as he arrives at Canberra Airport on June 26, 2024.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange embraces his wife Stella Assange as he arrives at Canberra Airport on June 26, 2024. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The story so far: In a dramatic conclusion to an extradition saga that lasted more than a decade, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on June 26 pleaded guilty to violating espionage law, allowing him to walk free to return to his home in Australia, as part of a landmark deal with U.S. Justice Department.

Mr. Assange, who founded the whistleblower media group WikiLeaks in 2006, released classified documents relating to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010, among several others. He was sentenced to the five years he had already served in a British prison while fighting to avoid extradition to the U.S. Mr. Assange had left the British prison on June 24 to appear before a U.S. federal court in the Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Western Pacific.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures after landing at RAAF base in Canberra, Australia, June 26, 2024.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures after landing at RAAF base in Canberra, Australia, June 26, 2024.

Julian Assange and the cases against him

Born in 1971 in Townsville, Australia, Julian Assange studied mathematics and physics at the University of Melbourne but dropped out before completing his degree. In 2006, he launched WikiLeaks, which publishes large datasets of “censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption.”

Also Read | How did WikiLeaks get Julian Assange in so much trouble?

The website first grabbed global attention in 2010 when it published a cache of around half a million sensitive military files on Iraq and Afghanistan, including a classified video from 2007 that showed an Apache helicopter firing indiscriminately, killing a dozen people, including two Reuters correspondents in Baghdad. Around 250,000 secret diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies were also released.

The leaks caused ripples across the globe, with the U.S. government launching an inquiry into one of the largest security breaches in its military history.

In September 2010, Mr. Assange fled to Britain after an investigation was launched into alleged sex crimes by him, based on the accusations of two Swedish WikiLeaks volunteers. The British police arrested him two months later. The WikiLeaks founder, however, denied the charges and claimed that the case was a pretext to extradite him to the U.S. He subsequently filed multiple pleas against extradition to Sweden but relief evaded him. In June 2012, shortly after the UK Supreme Court rejected his final challenge against extradition to Sweden, Mr. Assange went to the Ecuadorean embassy in London seeking asylum. While the Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation in 2017, the British police maintained that Mr. Assange would be arrested. He remained in the embassy for seven years.

While Julian Assange’s lawyers argued that he had exposed U.S. wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government said his actions were beyond those of a journalist gathering information and had put lives at risk.

Meanwhile, former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who had accessed the U.S. Department of Defense database and uploaded classified files onto a WikiLeaks dropbox, spent seven years in prison before then President Barack Obama commuted the remainder of her 35-year sentence. The U.S. administration said it won’t pursue criminal charges against Mr. Assange or WikiLeaks. 

The extradition saga

In 2016, ahead of the U.S. presidential election, the spotlight was back on the website after it released thousands of emails belonging to John Podesta, the aide of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. As per prosecutors, Russian intelligence operatives had stolen the emails and used the anti-secrecy website to improve Donald Trump’s chances of victory.

The new Trump administration, which held a different view, charged the WikiLeaks founder with collaboration in a conspiracy. A U.S. court later indicted Mr. Assange on 17 additional charges related to the violation of the Espionage Act of 1917.

As pressure mounted, the Ecuadorian government revoked his asylum in 2019 and Mr. Assange was arrested and jailed for breaching bail conditions in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison.

The U.K. approved Mr. Assange’s extradition in 2022. However, he won the right to appeal the verdict in a final legal bid to stop his extradition. His legal team claimed the case was politically motivated and an assault on the freedom of speech. The U.S. President’s remarks that his administration was “considering” a request from Australia to drop its prosecution was a ray of hope for Mr. Assange’s family.

On June 26, Julian Assange walked out of the Belmarsh Prison where he spent the last five years to appear before a federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands— to secure his freedom as part of a plea deal with the U.S. “Julian Assange is free. He left Belmarsh maximum security prison on the morning of 24 June, after having spent 1901 days there. He was granted bail by the High Court in London…” tweeted WikiLeaks.

What’s the deal? 

Under the deal, Julian Assange admitted guilt to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified documents during the hearing that took place on June 26 in a district court in Saipan.

Mr. Assange said in court that though he believed the Espionage Act contradicted the First Amendment, he accepted the consequences of soliciting classified information from sources for publication, AP reported.

The judge approved his plea, sentenced him to the five years he had already spent in the U.K. fighting extradition, pronouncing him a “free man.”

Julian Assange landed in the Australian capital Canberra on June 26. His wife Stella Assange and their two children have been in Australia awaiting his release.

While it is not yet clear what Mr. Assange’s plans are, his lawyer Barry Pollack has said, “WikiLeaks’ work will continue and Mr. Assange, I have no doubt, will be a continuing force for freedom of speech and transparency in government.”

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