WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is free. His future in publishing government secrets is unclear

Julian Assange is a hero to many and a traitor to others. Supporters of the WikiLeaks founder and publisher see him as an investigative journalist who uncovered devastating information that governments wanted to keep hidden, while critics see him as a threat to national security. His latest title, however, is free man.

His 14-year legal saga to avoid extradition to the US and face espionage charges over the publication of troves of classified intelligence files in 2010 has come to an end.

Assange pleaded guilty on Tuesday in a US federal court in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, to a single charge of conspiracy to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defense information.

But it is unclear if or when he will resume his life’s work — and whether WikiLeaks will once again become a clearinghouse for whistleblowers revealing state and military secrets — given the toll the ordeal has had on him.

He will always be a defender of human rights, his wife Stella Assange said, but she told reporters in the Australian capital Canberra on Wednesday evening that the 52-year-old must recover.

“You have to understand what he went through,” she said. “He needs time.”

She asked people to give them space and privacy “so that our family can be a family before he can speak again at a time of his choosing.”

A white-haired man hugs and kisses a woman, while in the background another woman, left, and a man, right, smile.
Assange kisses his wife Stella as he arrives at Canberra airport on Wednesday. Family, supporters and politicians welcomed his release and return, with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese saying the case had “gone on too long”. (Roni Bintang/Getty Images)

The plea deal meant he was sentenced to time served in Britain and was free to go.

Assange has spent the past five years incarcerated in England’s high-security Belmarsh prison, spending 23 hours a day in his cell as he fought extradition to face trial on 18 charges under the US Espionage Act – charges for which he could have been sentenced to 175 years in prison if convicted.

Before that, he lived for seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he was granted political asylum after courts in England ruled he should be extradited to Sweden as part of a rape investigation that was eventually dropped in 2017.

Negative impact on Assange, Wikileaks

Assange’s US legal counsel, Barry Pollack, says there are no restrictions or gag orders of any kind as part of the plea agreement.

But James Turk, director of the Center for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University, has doubts about Assange’s future in publishing sensitive information.

“I think the trial has had a very negative impact on him, which could make it difficult for him to play an active role as a journalist or publisher in the future,” he told CBC News.

Assange, who founded WikiLeaks in 2006, rose to fame in 2010 when his organization began publishing some 700,000 secret documents and diplomatic cables released by US military whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

Many of the documents concerned the conduct of the US military during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, documents showing that civilian casualties in the two US-led wars were much higher than reported and details of the detention of US prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A man with long white hair tied in a ponytail, with a long white beard, makes a peace sign with his fingers through the window of a van.
Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle upon his arrival at London’s Westminster Magistrates Court in April 2019, after Scotland Yard police officers arrested him at the Ecuadorian embassy, ​​where he had lived since 2012. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Manning also leaked a video titled WikiLeaks Additional murdershowing US forces fatally shooting a dozen Iraqi civilians, including two employees of the Reuters news agencyfrom two Apache helicopters in Baghdad in July 2007.

Manning was arrested in May 2010 and later convicted of twenty charges under the Espionage Act. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but former US President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017, during his final days in office.

In the years that followed, WikiLeaks also released leaked Democratic Party emails from the National Security Agency and tens of thousands of internal emails hacked from Sony Pictures.

But WikiLeaks has not published anything on its website since 2021 and has not released any original documents since 2019.

Assange, in a 2023 interview with The nation from Belmarsh prison said the organization could not publish leaks due to his imprisonment, U.S. government surveillance and restrictions on the organization’s funding.

WATCH | Assange and wife reunite in Australia after 14-year legal saga ends:

The US government remains not critical of Assange

The US State Department said on Wednesday that Assange and the 2010 WikiLeaks publications not only damaged the ability of diplomats to build relationships abroad, but also put lives at risk.

His legal team disputed the accusation that WikiLeaks endangered people.

“There is no evidence of actual harm and that is exactly what the US government has acknowledged in court in Saipan today,” Assange’s Australian legal adviser, Jennifer Robinson, said in Canberra.

Brigadier General Robert Carr, a senior US counterintelligence official who led an investigation into the impact of the WikiLeaks cables and testified at Manning’s sentencing hearing in 2013, said he found no examples of people dying as a result of the leaks .

The people who actually suffered harm in all of this, Turk said, were the two who exposed classified information – Assange and Manning – while those who committed potential war crimes, as revealed in the leaks, suffered no consequences.

A line of protesters hold signs in front of the brick wall outside a prison.
Activists demonstrated outside London’s Belmarsh Prison on April 14 to mark five years since Assange’s arrest. He spent five years in the maximum security prison, spending 23 hours a day in his cell. (David Cliff/The Associated Press)

Press freedom in danger

Press freedom advocates cheered Assange’s release but warned that even the plea deal has consequences for journalists and news media.

The very fact that he was charged under the Espionage Act — a law that dates back to World War I but has never been used to prosecute a journalist or publisher — sends shivers down the spines of journalists who work with classified documents, Trevor said Timm, the executive. director of the Press Freedom Foundation.

“I think we avoided the worst-case scenario,” he said in an interview from Washington, DC, explaining that if Assange had been tried in the US, the case would likely have gone on appeal and ultimately before the Supreme Court. Council would have ended up. Court, where a legal precedent could have been set.

That, Timm said, would have allowed “overzealous prosecutors who have an ax against the media” to go after organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post, which he noted have a long history of publishing leakage of classified material.

Journalists covering national security and other sensitive areas of governance speak to confidential sources and encounter classified information every day for their reporting, he explained.

That’s something news organizations might think twice about moving forward, he said, if the threat of prosecution under the Espionage Act looms over them.

WATCH | Assange travels to Saipan to make plea in US spy case:

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *