Julian Assange’s Extraordinary Journey: From US Courtroom to Freedom in Australia


Around 18 months ago, a lawyer representing Julian Assange made a daring request to federal prosecutors in Virginia: drop the case against the WikiLeaks founder.

It was an audacious move, considering Assange had released a vast number of classified documents and was one of the most high-profile detainees facing a U.S. extradition request. At that time, the Justice Department was locked in a lengthy legal battle in British courts to bring him to the United States for trial.

Yet, that request set the stage for Wednesday’s extraordinary moment: Assange emerging from a U.S. courthouse on a remote Western Pacific island, starting his journey home after spending over a decade in self-exile and prison.

“How does it feel to be a free man, Mr. Assange?” someone called out.

He smiled, nodded, and continued walking. Another flight awaited to take him home to Australia.

The plea deal emerged amid a sluggish extradition process with no certainty that Assange, a self-proclaimed free speech advocate, would ever be transferred for prosecution. U.S. officials also took into account the more than five years he had already served in a British prison. Negotiations involved numerous proposals to reconcile key points: the Justice Department’s insistence on a felony guilty plea and Assange’s refusal to enter the continental U.S., fearing potential dire consequences.

The agreement included provisions ensuring Assange’s freedom in Australia, even if a judge rejected it at the last moment.

This account is based on interviews with individuals familiar with the negotiations and a review of court records.

Assange’s release in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, ended a contentious legal saga spanning three U.S. administrations and multiple continents.

Five years ago, the scenario seemed implausible.

Back then, the Justice Department unsealed charges as British authorities forcefully removed Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he had been hiding for seven years. Assange sought refuge in 2012, fearing arrest and extradition to the U.S. related to WikiLeaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of war logs and diplomatic cables, which U.S. prosecutors alleged he conspired with Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to illegally obtain.

At the time of his indictment, Assange was notorious for WikiLeaks’ role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, releasing damaging emails about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton stolen by Russian intelligence officers, which officials said was part of Moscow’s election interference.

Trump famously declared during his campaign, “WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks.” He also recently hinted at the possibility of pardoning Julian Assange during an interview on the podcast TimcastIRL.

Inside the Justice Department, however, the view was different. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 prioritized Assange’s arrest amid a crackdown on leaks of classified information.

The indictment did not relate to the election interference but to the earlier diplomatic cables. The Obama administration had debated charging Assange but refrained, partly due to concerns it could be seen as an attack on journalism.

The Trump administration took a different approach. The existence of a criminal case was inadvertently revealed by a filing error in 2018. Initially, a single computer intrusion charge was unsealed, accusing Assange of conspiring with Manning to crack a password for higher-level access to classified networks.

Soon after, the Justice Department revealed 17 additional counts under the Espionage Act, accusing him of obtaining and disseminating secret records.

Prosecutors argued Assange crossed the line by soliciting the hacking of classified networks and publishing unredacted sources’ names. His supporters maintained he provided a public service by exposing military misconduct, akin to journalistic duties.

The case posed legal and logistical challenges.

With Assange jailed in London’s Belmarsh prison, the Justice Department struggled to secure his extradition, a complex process involving assurances that he could invoke First Amendment protections.

With the extradition prospects uncertain, Assange’s team saw Attorney General Merrick Garland’s tenure as an opportunity for resolution.

About 18 months ago, in initial substantial communications, an Assange lawyer proposed dismissing the indictment. Though the idea was unfeasible, prosecutors later countered with a plea offer.

Assange’s team was open to discussing a plea but insisted on no additional prison time and no travel to the U.S., due to fears of American governmental actions.

Assange’s lawyers suggested a misdemeanor plea, which could be entered remotely. When that didn’t finalize, discussions shifted to WikiLeaks pleading guilty to a felony and Assange to a misdemeanor.

The negotiations, involving Virginia prosecutors and later Justice Department national security officials, eventually led to a compromise: Assange could plead outside the U.S., avoid further prison time, and be released from British custody.

After weeks of negotiations, Saipan was selected as the location meeting the criteria. Garland explained that the Justice Department reached a resolution serving U.S. interests, given Assange’s significant time in British prison.

The extradition process had been slow and strained. A British court in March ruled Assange couldn’t be extradited without U.S. assurances against the death penalty and guaranteeing First Amendment defenses.

The U.S. provided these assurances, but Assange’s lawyers only accepted the death penalty assurance, viewing the free speech defense as inadequate. A court recently allowed an appeal on the extradition order due to “blatantly inadequate” U.S. assurances.

The plea deal included contingencies for potential judge rejection, allowing Assange to withdraw and return to Australia or have the charge dismissed if detained.

Australian officials pushed for his release, with the government requesting a plea deal. President Joe Biden in April mentioned considering dropping the case. The White House this week stated it had no role in the plea agreement.

The deal was finalized on June 19, as documented by London’s High Court. Assange’s wife, Stella, expressed relief in a video recorded outside Belmarsh, anticipating his release.

The video, held until Assange was en route to Saipan, was released after the plea deal news broke.

“If you’re seeing this, it means he is out,” said WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson.

Wednesday morning, Saipan, known for its World War II history and scuba diving spots, became the site of Assange’s case closure.

After a long flight from London to Bangkok to Saipan, Assange arrived at the island’s federal courthouse, a grand structure with ocean views.

Wearing a dark suit with a gold tie, Assange appeared relaxed inside, joking and reading documents. When asked if he was satisfied with the plea conditions, he quipped, “It might depend on the outcome,” prompting courtroom laughter.

Post-plea, the judge declared him a “free man,” and Assange headed home to Australia, reuniting with his family.

Assange’s future in Australia is uncertain, but he avoided the media at a news conference where his wife spoke of his simple future plans.

“Julian plans to swim in the ocean every day,” she said. “He plans to sleep in a real bed, taste real food, and enjoy his freedom.”

Associated Press
Associated Press
The Associated Press is an American not-for-profit news agency headquartered in New York City.

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