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Julian Assange’s plea deal sparks global celebration, condemnation

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s tentative plea deal with the United States, which could soon bring an end to his years-long international legal saga, drew celebration and criticism, reflecting the divisive nature of his role in obtaining and publishing classified military and diplomatic documents.

While Assange’s supporters saw him as a courageous whistleblower of government misdeeds, his critics saw him as a self-promoter oblivious to the harm that his leaks might cause. WikiLeaks’ publication of the Afghan War Logs, for example, did not obscure the names of Afghan civilians who had provided information to the U.S. military, an omission that dismayed human rights groups and U.S. national security officials.

Hours after news of Assange’s expected release broke Monday evening Eastern time, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told lawmakers that there was nothing to be gained by Assange’s continued imprisonment.

“Regardless of the views that people have about Mr. Assange’s activities, the case has dragged on for too long,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks provided by his office. “We want him brought home to Australia,” Albanese said.

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But former vice president Mike Pence tweeted his opposition to the plea deal, saying the Assange’s actions had risked U.S. national security and service members’ lives.

“Julian Assange endangered the lives of our troops in a time of war and should have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Pence said. “The Biden administration’s plea deal with Assange is a miscarriage of justice and dishonors the service and sacrifice of the men and women of our Armed Forces and their families.”

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said June 25 that there was nothing to be gained by keeping WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange incarcerated. (Video: Reuters)

Assange’s plane departed London on Monday for the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific, stopping in Bangkok on Tuesday for a layover. He is due to attend a court hearing in Saipan, the largest island and capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, at 9 a.m. local time Wednesday (7 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday), the Justice Department said in a letter filed Monday evening.

Assange is expected to plead guilty to a single charge of espionage before he returns to his home country of Australia, the DOJ letter said, indicating that he will be sentenced to the 62 months he has already spent imprisoned in London.

Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Human Rights Office, welcomed Assange’s release from London’s Belmarsh Prison, where he had been jailed for more than five years, adding in a statement that his case and “protracted detention” had raised human rights concerns. “We will continue to monitor developments over the coming days,” she added.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also welcomed the news, saying that Assange’s case “was discussed very emotionally all over the world and moved many people,” according to Reuters. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador tweeted that he was “celebrating” Assange’s exit from prison.

On Tuesday, Assange’s wife, Stella, told BBC radio: “I’m just elated, frankly, it’s incredible — it feels like it’s not real.”

She said Assange’s release had been “touch and go” and only in the last 24 hours became certain that it was “actually happening.”

Stella Assange said she was limited in what she could say publicly about the plea deal, but confirmed that it concerned one count under the U.S. Espionage Act, and that her husband would plead guilty to it.

“The important thing here is that the deal involved time served, so if he signs it he is able to walk free,” she said, adding that the deal would eventually be made public, without giving further details.

Assange told Reuters that her husband will seek a pardon after he pleads guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act, which she described as “a very serious concern for journalists.” Only the president can grant pardons in the United States.

Vaughan Smith, a restaurant owner who once gave Julian Assange sanctuary at his Norfolk estate in England while he was fighting extradition, said in an emailed statement: “I am delighted for Julian and his wife Stella, and their two children. This matter needed to end, but it is disappointing that the U.S. authorities weren’t able to protect all of our freedoms by dropping the matter entirely.”

James Ball, an early WikiLeaks employee who left after three months at the organization, said that neither Assange nor the United States “can really call this a win.”

“Many journalists — myself included — and many who are no fans of Assange said the prosecution was a risk to press freedom. A plea deal doesn’t change that, and is something Assange would only agree through sheer necessity,” he tweeted. Ball theorized that the plea deal was a “practical choice” for Assange, who has spent years in exile and prison, and for the United States “a chance to save face given Assange’s sentence would likely be shorter than time served.”

The choice of the hearing in the Northern Mariana Islands was made “in light of the defendant’s opposition to traveling to the continental United States to enter his guilty plea and the proximity” of the islands to Australia, the DOJ said in its Monday letter.

Committee to Protect Journalists CEO Jodie Ginsberg welcomed the news, stating that Assange’s prosecution “had grave implications for journalists and press freedom worldwide.”

Glenn Greenwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who founded the Intercept before leaving it in 2021, characterized Assange as “the most consequential, and courageous, journalist of his generation.”

Alan Rusbridger, former editor in chief of the Guardian newspaper, which published WikiLeaks’ findings, welcomed the news but added: “his treatment was a warning to journalists and whistleblowers to keep quiet in future. And I suspect it will have worked.”

While Pence opposed the news in the United States, other Republicans celebrated it.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said Assange’s “liberation is great news, but it’s a travesty that he’s already spent so much time in jail.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) called Assange’s possible release “amazing news,” saying he was “held for years for the crime of committing journalism.”

Massie, alongside independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., also called for the freedom of Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who leaked information about top-secret U.S. surveillance programs, and Ross Ulbricht, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2015 for his work behind the online drug marketplace Silk Road. Snowden, who remains wanted by Washington on espionage charges, has been living in exile in Russia.

Cornel West, another independent candidate for the 2024 U.S. presidency, said Assange “should be pardoned immediately because he committed no crime. He simply exposed the barbaric crimes of the American empire!”

Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News host, also welcomed the news, describing Assange as a “good man, finally free.”

In a statement, WikiLeaks said Assange’s departure from the United Kingdom was “the result of a global campaign that spanned grass-roots organisers, press freedom campaigners, legislators and leaders from across the political spectrum,” the group added.

“WikiLeaks published groundbreaking stories of government corruption and human rights abuses, holding the powerful accountable for their actions. As editor-in-chief, Julian paid severely for these principles, and for the people’s right to know,” WikiLeaks said.

Stella Assange speaking from Sydney told BBC radio she had yet to tell her two sons, ages 5 and 7, they will be reunited with their father, whom they have only spent time with while he’s been incarcerated.

“All I told them was that there’s a big surprise,” she said.

“The priority now is for Julian to get healthy again, he’s been in a terrible state,” she said, adding that he intends to spend time “in contact with nature” and “start a new chapter.”

Karla Adam contributed to this report.



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