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HomeWorld NewsThe long saga of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange may finally be over

The long saga of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange may finally be over

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LONDON — The long legal battle over Julian Assange may finally be nearing an end. It has been a sprawling, almost surreal drama — involving the United States, Britain, Sweden, Ecuador and Australia — that saw the 52-year-old WikiLeaks founder holed up in cramped rooms and held in prison cells for a quarter of his life.

His story of hacking and leaking, flight and imprisonment, courtroom theatrics and now possibly imminent release is inspiring, chilling, depressing — depending on how you view Assange.

The case raised, but never definitely answered, vital questions about what it means to be a journalist, a publisher and a whistleblower.

Was he a non-state actor threatening the national security of the United States, as CIA director Mike Pompeo once alleged?

Or a hero, as his many supporters believed as they gathered time after time in front of British courthouses, while Assange’s attorneys fought against his extradition to the United States.

Assange’s defenders have for years argued that his First Amendment rights — to publish leaked, embarrassing, newsworthy information about U.S. conduct in overseas wars — were under assault.

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Federal prosecutors saw it far differently, presenting an 18-count indictment accusing him of seeking to help hack into classified systems withChelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, and violating the Espionage Act by publishing thousands of pages of military and diplomatic cables about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Assange’s lawyers say the charges could have brought him up to 175 years in prison. Attorneys representing the U.S. government told British courts considering his extradition that, if found guilty, he might have served 48 to 63 months.

Assange may be about to win, while also having lost.

A new court filing showed he was preparing to plead guilty to a single felony count of violating the Espionage Act for his role in obtaining and disseminating classified military and diplomatic documents from 2009 to 2011.

With a court hearing scheduled for Wednesday morning in the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, Assange may now have left Britain, where he has been since 2010. WikiLeaks posted on X that Assange had left Belmarsh prison on Monday.

If his plea deal goes forward, he could be going free back to his home, Australia, for time served.

But he has paid a high price.

Archival photos from the days when he was riding high as the pathbreaking founder of rebel WikiLeaks show a cool silver haired hacker-activist-journalist in a leather jacket, his hand raised in a fist. He was going to change the world.

In his last appearances in a London courtroom, appearing behind a glass wall, he was a physically diminished man. He looked unwell, he barely spoke.

Assange was too sick, too frail to attend his most recent court hearings in London, his team said.

His current medical condition is unknown. His lawyers have said he is battling depression — that a blade was once found in his cell, and that, if imprisoned in the United States, he might try to kill himself.

His supporters argue that he was hounded for years by the U.S. security and intelligence establishment.

The Obama administration ultimately declined to bring charges against Assange, and commuted Manning’s sentence. But after President Donald Trump took office, Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked prosecutors in Virginia to take another look at the Assange case.

One of the files released by Assange and WikiLeaks in 2010 was a classified U.S. military “gunsight video” showing a 2007 attack in Baghdad by an Apache helicopter that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

News outlets around the world, including The Washington Post, used the leaked footage and other WikiLeaks documents to publish their own stories.

Prosecutors said the WikiLeaks exposés included unredacted names of sources that put lives at risk.

The indictment did not address WikiLeaks’ later release of Democrats’ emails, which authorities have alleged were stolen by Russia to disrupt the 2016 presidential election. Russia denied the allegation. Trump, then a presidential candidate, declared at a rally, “I love WikiLeaks.”

In 2010, Swedish police sought a European arrest warrant for Assange — not for his journalism or whistleblowing — but to question him about an accusation of sexual assault in the Nordic country. (The investigation that was dropped in 2019.)

After posting bond and losing his appeal against the warrant, Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012. He was granted political asylum by Ecuador’s left-leaning government, which said it shared Assange’s fears of political persecution and eventual extradition to the United States.

Assange remained in the embassy for almost seven years, living in a suite of small rooms, never venturing outside, except for brief appearances on the balcony to address supporters or the press.

It was there he fell in love with one of his lawyers, Stella Moris, who would become his partner, and later his wife. The couple conceived their two sons while Assange lived in the embassy.

But Ecuador said he was not a good guest — that he abused staff, spread excrement on the walls. He may have also played a role in releasing documents that showed Ecuador’s president had benefited from offshore accounts.

In 2019, he was expelled by his hosts and arrested by London’s Metropolitan Police on U.S. charges.

Video of the arrest showed a gray-bearded Assange being hauled down the embassy’s steps and shoved into a police van. He appeared to be resisting. His hands were secured in front of him, clutching a copy of Gore Vidal’s “History of the National Security State.”

Assange was taken to Belmarsh prison out the outskirts of London, a high-security facility, filled with hardened criminals. He would spend five years there, while British courts held seemingly endless hearings on whether to shield him from extradition.

The charges have generated a steady stream of criticism from human rights advocates and free press activists.

On the day of one of the last court hearings in London, Timon Gehr, 34, a computer scientist from Switzerland, stood outside and decried Assange’s time in prison as “psychological torture” and he doubted that Assange could get a fair hearing in the United States. “It’s clear this is political prosecution,” he said.

The Australian Parliament earlier this year called for Assange to be set free.

The Committee to Protect Journalists and a coalition of press freedom groups warned in a public letter that the prosecution of Assange, under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, would allow for the prosecution of journalists “who are simply doing their jobs.”

They called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to drop all charges against Assange.

Salvador Rizzo in New York contributed to this report.

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