​Free man: On the release of Julian Assange

Assange deserves his freedom, but his conviction is a setback for free speech 

Updated - June 26, 2024 01:30 am IST

Published - June 26, 2024 12:10 am IST

Julian Assange did what journalists do in free societies. He published troves of secret documents exposing the conduct of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and of its diplomacy. And for that, he was denied his freedom for more than 14 years. The hounding of Mr. Assange is a rare modern story of western democracies across the Atlantic, which take pride in their freedoms, working hand in hand to punish a journalist, publisher and whistle-blower. The WikiLeaks founder was first arrested in Britain in 2010 on a European warrant over sex crime allegations reported in Sweden — those charges were later dropped. While on bail, he took asylum in the Ecuador embassy in London, where he was holed up until 2019. He was kicked out of the embassy, and Britain rearrested him and put him in the high-security Belmarsh prison. After five years of life in jail, where he was largely confined to a solitary cell, the U.S. entered into a plea deal with Mr. Assange, that would set him free. The 52-year-old will plead guilty in the espionage case before a U.S. federal judge in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. Commonwealth territory in the western Pacific. According to U.S. and British media, Mr. Assange is expected to be sentenced for about five years, the time he has already served in Britain. He will then go to Australia, his native country.

While Mr. Assange’s release, which brings his years-long ordeal to an end and is a reprieve for those who have been fighting for him, is welcome news, the road towards this day was not smooth. The way he is being released still raises concerns. The classified documents WikiLeaks published were handed to Mr. Assange by Chelsea Manning, a U.S. military analyst. Ms. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act. U.S. President Barack Obama commuted her sentence, allowing her to go free in 2017, but Mr. Assange remained unfree. The Trump Justice Department indicted him in 2019 on 18 counts. And the Biden administration continued to push for his extradition, which he fought doggedly. Last year, Australia’s Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese urged the U.S. to conclude the case, while lawmakers there passed a resolution this year calling for Mr. Assange to be allowed to return home. In recent years, the case has also become a public relations disaster for Joe Biden’s Democratic administration. So when Mr. Assange agreed to plead guilty, all sides found a deal to conclude the case that would get the U.S. a conviction which it had been seeking and Mr. Assange his freedom. Yet, the fact that Mr. Assange would be convicted for publishing state secrets is a setback for free speech. And the pursuit of a whistle-blower for over 14 years would remain a blot on western democracies, especially the U.K. and the U.S., forever.

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