Julian Assange walks free after guilty plea in Saipan court

Key points
  • WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has pleaded guilty to one charge in a US court in Saipan.
  • Assange walked out of the courtroom and the judge sentenced him to a prison term that he has already served.
  • Despite the verdict that led to Assange’s release, his legal team said his prosecution set a “dangerous precedent.”
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange hugged his wife and father as he walked across the tarmac in Canberra and returned to his home country a free man.
Assange was expected to speak to the media, but his wife Stella Assange said he needed “time to recover” and “get used to freedom”, thanking the Australian government and the opposition, among others, for had worked to secure Assange’s freedom.
Assange pleaded guilty to a charge of US espionage in Saipan, 14 years after publishing secret military documents.

Jennifer Robinson, legal adviser to Julian Assange, said Assange told Prime Minister Anthony Albanese that he had saved his life.

A man kisses a woman while another man and woman watch

Julian Assange kisses his wife Stella Assange after arriving at Canberra airport. Source: MONKEY / Lucas Koch

“This is a huge victory for freedom of expression. This is a huge victory for Australia, that our Prime Minister stood up to our ally, the United States, and demanded the return of an Australian citizen. And Julian coming home today is the product of fourteen long years of legal battles, political advocacy and ongoing campaigning,” she said.

Assange’s U.S. attorney Barry Pollack said Assange has performed a “great public service, not a crime.”
The story that began with Assange holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London before leading him to solitary confinement in Belmarsh Prison in Britain ended in a tropical paradise in the Pacific Ocean.
Assange, along with his support team and Australian Ambassador to the US Kevin Rudd, arrived at the US court in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, just before 8am.

When the court hearing resumed after 9 a.m., he took the oath, gave his full name and swore to tell the truth.

Chief Judge Ramona Manglona told the court that Assange is accused of conspiring to obtain and disclose national defense information.
The 52-year-old pleaded guilty to the specific charge, which is a violation of 18 USC Section 793(g) and carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
The US federal court accepted the guilty plea.
Pollack confirmed outside court after the verdict that the judge had determined that “no additional incarceration would be fair to Mr. Assange,” and sentenced him to a prison term he had already served.
Assange spent more than five years in London’s Belmarsh prison after being locked up there in 2019.

Pollack said that while Assange admitted violating the Espionage Act, it was fundamentally flawed and inconsistent with the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

“We firmly believe that Mr. Assange should never have been charged under the Espionage Act and should never have engaged in an exercise that journalists engage in every day, and we are grateful that they do so,” he said.
Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton told SBS World News that he has made many trips to the US to work with “allies” for Assange’s release.
“Once you explain to people what is really going on and what is really at stake for them in the US, they usually come to support Julian. They understand that it is not just about him, but about their rights.

“This Espionage Act conviction to which Julian has pleaded guilty is effectively a threat to journalists around the world. If you publish this kind of information, the US can use its Espionage Act to reach any area in the world and indict you.”

Outside court, Robinson, Assange’s longest-serving council member, labeled the verdict “the greatest threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century.”
“This prosecution sets a dangerous precedent that should concern journalists everywhere,” she said.

“Anyone who cares about freedom of expression and democratic accountability must oppose it. But I want to encourage everyone who stood up and fought for Julian to continue to stand up and fight against this dangerous precedent.”

What has the reaction been?

Australia has long called on the US to end its pursuit of Assange, who faced espionage charges.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he spoke to Assange when he landed in Canberra.
He said he had raised the issue directly with US President Joe Biden and that a group of politicians from across Australia’s political spectrum met in Washington in September to lobby US decision-makers.
“Regardless of people’s views on Assange’s activities, the case has dragged on for too long,” Albanese said.
National MP Barnaby Joyce praised the “good outcome” and went so far as to say the US government had crossed the line by trying to convict Assange.

“If you don’t commit an offense in Australia, citizenship means there is no risk of being jailed in a third country. That is the premise of my argument,” he told ABC News Breakfast on Wednesday.

Former US Vice President Mike Pence wrote on X that the plea represents a “miscarriage of justice”.

“There should be no plea deals to avoid prison for anyone who endangers the safety of our military or the national security of the United States. Someday,” he said.

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