Julian Assange released from UK prison after plea deal

Assange ends 12-year legal battle with agreement to plead guilty

by Faruk Imamovic
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Julian Assange released from UK prison after plea deal
© Getty Images/Peter Nicholls

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is finally leaving prison in the UK, reports CNN. On Monday, June 24, 2024, Assange left for his home country, Australia, marking the end of the long-running battle for his extradition to the United States.

The controversial 52-year-old has spent the last five years in a high-security British prison, and before that almost seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, trying to avoid arrest that could lead to life in prison.

Plea agreement

Assange has agreed to plead guilty to charges related to his alleged role in one of the largest breaches of classified US government material. His whistleblower website, WikiLeaks, has released nearly half a million classified military documents about the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The plea agreement ends a long-running legal saga, allowing Assange to avoid prison in the US and return to Australia a free man. Before that, however, he must appear in court in a remote US territory in the Pacific.

The road to freedom

WikiLeaks announced Tuesday that Assange had left Belmarsh prison after spending 1,901 days there. He boarded the flight from London's Stansted Airport, accompanied by Stephen Smith, Australia's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

Under the terms of the deal, US Justice Department prosecutors will seek a sentence of 62 months - matching the time Assange spent in the UK fighting extradition. The agreement would count that time, allowing Assange to return to Australia immediately. However, the deal still has to be approved by a federal judge.

Trial in the Pacific

Because Assange has been opposed to stepping onto US mainland soil to plead guilty, a judge will hold a sentencing hearing on Wednesday in Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands. This Pacific island is an American territory located about 6,000 kilometers west of Hawaii, where the US federal district court is located.

The islands are also closer to Australia, where Assange is a citizen and where he is expected to return after his court hearing. This unusual trial location was chosen as a compromise between US demands and Assange's preferences.

Julian Assange
Julian Assange© Getty Images/Jack Taylor
 

Background to the Assange case

Assange was wanted by US authorities on espionage charges related to WikiLeaks' release of hundreds of thousands of sensitive military and government documents provided by former military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 and 2011.

The US accused Assange of jeopardizing the lives of confidential sources by publishing unfiltered cable messages. He faced 18 charges for his alleged role in the breach and faced a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.

WikiLeaks

Assange started WikiLeaks in 2006 as an online repository for the anonymous publication of material. The site gained global attention in 2010 when it released a video purporting to show a deadly 2007 US helicopter strike in Iraq.

Shortly thereafter, WikiLeaks published thousands of classified US military documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a host of diplomatic cables. Assange previously described the documents as "compelling evidence of war crimes" committed by US-led coalition forces and Iraqi government forces.

The fight against extradition

Assange has long argued that the case against him is politically motivated, that he would not have a fair trial, and that his extradition would violate the European Convention on Human Rights. Freedom of speech advocates condemned the extradition attempt, arguing it would hurt press freedom.

In August 2010, Assange was accused of an assault in Sweden and faced an international arrest warrant. He denied the allegations, calling them a "smear campaign", and refused to go to Stockholm for questioning.

He surrendered to British authorities, but while out on bail in 2012, while appealing extradition to Sweden, fled to the Ecuadorian embassy seeking political asylum.

Life in the embassy and arrest

During his time at the embassy, ​​WikiLeaks continued to release information, including in 2016 when it released thousands of emails allegedly hacked from the Democratic National Committee and emails stolen from the private account of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, ahead of the US election.

However, over time his relationship with his host deteriorated, and the president of Ecuador came under pressure from the US to expel him from the diplomatic refuge. In 2019, Assange was extracted from the embassy by the London Metropolitan Police on an extradition warrant issued by the US Department of Justice.

He spent the last five years mostly in isolation, in a 3x2 meter cell at Belmarsh Prison. This prison has a capacity of more than 900 inmates and is known for having once held notorious terrorist suspects in its high-security unit.

Support for Assange's release

Recently, pressure has increased to have Assange's case dismissed. In May, the High Court in London ruled that Assange had the right to appeal in his latest challenge against extradition to the US, and US President Joe Biden hinted at a possible deal being pushed by Australian government officials for his return to Australia.

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