WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange expected to plead guilty, avoid further prison time as part of deal with US

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange expected to plead guilty, avoid further prison time as part of deal with US
Supporters of Julian Assange demonstrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice as the High Court is set to deliver a ruling whether Assange can appeal against the US’s extradition order in London, United Kingdom on May 20, 2024. (Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu via Getty Images)

(WASHINGTON) — The Justice Department has reached an agreement with Julian Assange to plead guilty to a single felony count of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified information, in a deal that is expected to resolve the WikiLeaks founder’s charges in the U.S. with no further time in prison, according to court documents unsealed Monday evening.

The deal is expected to effectively bring to an end to a yearslong legal battle by the U.S. to prosecute Assange over the publishing of classified military and diplomatic materials that were leaked by former American soldier Chelsea Manning in 2010, including some that showed possible war crimes committed by American forces in Iraq.

According to a letter posted by U.S. prosecutors, Assange will plead guilty in U.S. federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands and is expected to return afterward to Australia, indicating prosecutors will not be requesting a judge sentence him beyond the term of time served for the five years he has spent in London’s Belmarsh prison fighting extradition.

The plea deal would resolve charges federal prosecutors brought against Assange under the Espionage Act over WikiLeaks’ publication of the leaked diplomatic and military documents that has come under criticism by First Amendment advocates over its potential implications for media freedom, as well as Assange’s ongoing detention in the U.K. which has been widely condemned by human rights organizations.

The deal should mean that Assange will finally walk free after spending more than a decade in some form of confinement while seeking to avoid prosecution by the U.S.

For the past five years, Assange has been imprisoned in London’s Belmarsh prison, one of the U.K.’s most secure jails, while he fought a U.S. extradition effort.

Before that, Assange spent seven years confined inside Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he fled in 2011 to avoid potential sexual assault charges brought in Sweden. Assange was granted asylum by Ecuador’s government, which permitted him to live in the embassy building while British police mounted a permanent watch outside.

But in 2019, Ecuador’s government evicted Assange, and British police arrested him on the embassy steps. Although by then, Swedish prosecutors had dropped the sexual assault case, a U.K. court convicted Assange of breaching his bail conditions and sentenced him to 50 weeks in prison. Despite long since serving that sentence, he has remained held in Belmarsh ever since.

After his arrest in London, U.S. prosecutors swiftly revealed a sealed indictment charging Assange with conspiring to hack into a classified Pentagon computer network and sought his extradition. Weeks later, the Justice Department under the Trump administration then announced a second superseding indictment charging Assange with 17 additional counts of violating the Espionage Act.

That decision to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act prompted heavy criticism from press freedom groups as well as major U.S. media organizations, which feared it risked setting a precedent that could criminalize any media outlet publishing classified information. Leading news organizations, including the New York Times, had urged the Biden administration to drop the case.

But the Biden administration continued to pursue the Espionage Act charges and after years of legal challenges, Assange appeared to be inching closer to extradition in the past year. But in May, Britain’s High Court ruled Assange had grounds to again appeal against the U.K. government’s effort to extradite him, once more prolonging the legal battle.

Amid the court fight, President Joe Biden earlier this year said publicly he was “considering” a request from Australia to end the prosecution against Assange.

An international campaign to free Assange has been ongoing for years, joined by celebrities and press freedom advocates. In 2019, a UN Special Rapporteur on torture criticized Assange’s treatment by U.K. authorities, saying the handling of his case put in doubt Britain’s commitment to human rights and that his treatment in Belmarsh amounted to “psychological torture.”

Assange’s wife, Stella Assange, has been helping lead the campaign to free him. Stella, who has two young sons with Assange, had said she feared for her husband if he was extradited to the U.S.

Speaking to ABC News outside Belmarsh prison last summer after visiting Assange, Stella said, “If he’s taken to the U.S., I can feel it that he will never come home.”

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