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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is free, ending years-long legal saga

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at the United States Courthouse where he entered a guilty plea to an espionage charge.
Chung Sung-Jun
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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at the United States Courthouse where he entered a guilty plea to an espionage charge.

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange walked out of court a free man Wednesday after a hours-long court appearance in which he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of violating the Espionage Act.

Assange, 52, is best known for the publication of classified military and diplomatic cables in 2010. His hearing was held in federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth. Assange was freed on the condition he leave the U.S. commonwealth.

Chief Judge Ramona Manglona said the time Assange had spent in Belmarsh prison in the U.K. — 62 months — was appropriate.

"I'm, in fact, sentencing you to your time served," she said.

She said she doubted there would be future breaches of the plea agreement, and allowed Assange to leave court a free man.

The proceedings ended a years-long legal saga involving the WikiLeaks founder who spent years holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London before being imprisoned in the U.K. He is expected to return to his native Australia after the proceedings.

During his court appearance, Judge Manglona asked Assange what he did to constitute the crime charged, he replied: "Working as a journalist, I encouraged my source to provide information that was said to be classified in order to publish that information. I believe that the First Amendment protected that activity."

He added: "I believe the First Amendment and the Espionage Act are in contradiction with each other, but I accept that it would be difficult to win such a case given all these circumstances."

Assange pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiring to obtain and disclose information related to the national defense in a U.S. federal court.

Assange wore a black blazer, a white button-down shirt, dress pants and a gold-beige tie. He was calm and didn't talk much, except to his counsel. He appeared composed and his tone was measured. He was charming and playful as he interacted with the judge.

Prior to his plea, Assange answered basic questions from Judge Manglona and told him he waived his right to indictment by a grand jury. When Manglona asked him whether he was happy with his legal representation, Assange replied: “That might depend on the outcome of the hearing,” prompting laughter.

Under the terms of the agreement, Assange faces a sentence of 62 months, equivalent to the time he has already served at Belmarsh Prison in the United Kingdom while fighting extradition to the United States. The judge said Assange was required to direct WikiLeaks tto destroy material containing classified information, though given how long this case has gone on, such an action is likely to have minimal impact.

A federal grand jury in Virginia indicted Assange on espionage and computer misuse charges in 2019, in what the Justice Department described as one of the largest compromises of classified information in American history.

The indictment accused Assange of conspiring with then-military Private Chelsea Manning to obtain and then publish secret reports about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables. Prosecutors said Assange published those materials on his site WikiLeaks without properly scrubbing them of sensitive information, putting informants and others at grave risk of harm.

Manning was arrested in 2010 and served seven years in prison before President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.

Assange’s case attracted support from human rights and journalism groups including Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, fearing the Espionage Act case against Assange could create precedent for charging journalists with national security crimes.

His interactions with the justice system have followed a byzantine path. Assange spent seven years hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after Swedish officials accused him of sexual assault, an arrangement that appeared to frustrate both Assange and his hosts.

Ultimately, Swedish police withdrew the accusations, but, next, authorities in the U.K. took him into custody for allegedly violating bail.

Then, the American government sought to extradite him, a process that limped through the courts for years. The plea deal averts more legal proceedings over the extradition that had been set for early July.

Rao, a reporter for Isla Public Media in Guam, reported from Saipan; Johnson from Washington

Copyright 2024 NPR

Naina Rao
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.