Julian Assange Granted Freedom After Plea Deal with US, Sentenced to Time Served

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served on Wednesday as part of a deal with the U.S. Justice Department to end his imprisonment.

Assange, an Australian publisher, entered the guilty plea Wednesday morning in federal court in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific. The sentence was imposed by U.S. District Judge Ramona Manglona. 

The plea in the commonwealth accommodated Assange’s wish to avoid the continental U.S. The deal was first disclosed Monday night in a letter from the Justice Department.

Assange arrived in court after flying from Britain – where he had been imprisoned – on a charter plane accompanied by members of his legal team and Australian officials.

This comes after years of Assange trying to avoid being extradited from the U.K. to the U.S. to face charges for publishing classified U.S. military documents leaked to him by a source.

Before his plea deal, Assange, 52, was facing 17 charges for allegedly receiving, possessing and communicating classified information to the public, as well as one charge alleging conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. By reaching a plea deal, he now avoids the potential of spending up to 175 years in an American maximum security prison.

The charges were brought by the Trump administration’s DOJ over WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication of cables leaked by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, and the Biden administration had continued to pursue prosecution until the plea deal. The cables detailed alleged war crimes committed by the U.S. government in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention camp, as well as instances of the CIA engaging in torture and rendition.

WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video showing the U.S. military gunning down civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists, was also published 14 years ago.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia has been “using all appropriate channels to support a positive outcome” in Assange’s case when speaking to reporters in the country’s capital of Canberra on Wednesday.

“I’ve been very clear as Labor Leader and as Prime Minister, that regardless of your views about Mr Assange’s activities, his case has dragged on for too long,” Albanese said. “There is nothing to be gained from his continued incarceration. And we want him brought home to Australia.”

As a condition of his plea, Assange must destroy classified information provided to WikiLeaks.

The plea deal required Assange to admit guilt to a single felony count but allowed him to avoid prison time in the U.S. and return home to his family in Australia. Assange’s release was welcomed by his family and supporters, but concerns about the precedent set by the deal were still raised since he was forced to admit to journalistic activities.

“It’s good news that the DOJ is putting an end to this embarrassing saga,” Seth Stern, director of advocacy at Freedom of the Press Foundation, told Digital. “But it’s alarming that the Biden administration felt the need to extract a guilty plea for the purported crime of obtaining and publishing government secrets. The plea deal won’t have the precedential effect of a court ruling, but it will still hang over the heads of national security reporters for years to come.”

One of Assange’s lawyers, Jennifer Robinson, told reporters that her client’s case “sets a dangerous precedent that should be a concern to journalists everywhere.”

“It’s a huge relief to Julian Assange, to his family, to his friends, to his supporters and to us — to everyone who believes in free speech around the world — that he can now return home to Australia and be reunited with his family,” she said.

Assange had been held at Belmarsh prison in southeast London since being removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy on April 11, 2019, for breaching bail conditions. He had sought asylum at the embassy since 2012 to avoid being sent to Sweden over allegations he raped two women because Sweden would not provide assurances it would protect him from extradition to the U.S. The investigations into the sexual assault allegations were eventually dropped.

With the end to this case, the Justice Department avoided an appeal hearing in which Assange would have challenged his U.S. extradition on First Amendment grounds. Last month, Assange was granted bail after his lawyers successfully argued that the U.S. provided “blatantly inadequate” assurances that he would have the same free speech protections as an American citizen in a U.S. courtroom.

Assange said in court Wednesday that he believed the Espionage Act contradicted the First Amendment, but accepted the consequences of soliciting classified information from sources.

He was the first journalist to be charged under the Espionage Act since 1917.

“This is a prosecution that should not have been brought,” Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told Digital. “Julian Assange has pled guilty to activities that are at the heart of national security investigative journalism, and that journalists perform every day. It’s the job of journalists to pry out the government secrets and to reveal them in the public interest.”

Assange’s wife, Stella, told the BBC it was “touch and go” for about 72 hours whether the deal would go through but that she felt “elated” at the news her husband would be freed. She said details of the agreement would be made public after the judge signed off.

The WikiLeaks founder left the London prison on Monday after being granted bail during a secret hearing last week. He boarded a plane that landed hours later in Bangkok to refuel before heading toward Saipan.

In 2013, the Obama administration decided not to indict Assange over WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication of classified cables because it would have had to also indict journalists from major news outlets who published the same materials.

President Obama also commuted Manning’s sentence for violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses to seven years in January 2017, and Manning, who had been imprisoned since 2010, was released later that year.