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What to know about WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and the deal set to free him

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Julian Assange has left Britain for the first time in more than a decade, heading to the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, where he is expected to plead guilty to a single U.S. charge of violating the Espionage Act in exchange for his freedom. Here’s a refresher on a saga that has been unfolding for more than 14 years.

What to know about Assange and the charges against him

  • Julian Assange is the co-founder of WikiLeaks, an organization known for its publication of high-profile leaked documents. Its targets have included the U.S. military, diplomats and Hillary Clinton’s staff. Before founding the site in 2006, he was a hacker in his native Australia.
  • Anti-secrecy and First Amendment advocates have championed Assange, while others including the U.S. government have said his actions have threatened national security.
  • In 2019, U.S. prosecutors in an 18-count indictment accused him of seeking to help hack into classified systems with Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, and violating the Espionage Act by publishing military documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and diplomatic cables. Manning was court-martialed and served almost seven years of a 35-year sentence for violating the Espionage Act before President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017.
  • The U.S. charges relate only to the Iraq and Afghanistan war files and diplomatic cables obtained by Manning in 2010. In 2016 WikiLeaks also published emails that Russian government hackers stole from Democratic Party servers and that U.S. authorities assessed were leaked by Moscow in an effort to disrupt the presidential election. He was not charged in connection with those documents.
  • Assange has been in prison in Britain since 2019, fighting extradition to the United States. Before that, he had been living inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012, to avoid extradition to Sweden in connection with 2010 allegations of sexual assault lodged against him by two women. The sexual assault investigation was dropped in 2019 and Ecuador ceased extending him protection.

What does the plea deal entail and what happens next?

Under the plea deal that Assange is expected to sign, he will plead guilty to one charge of violating the Espionage Act — “conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified information relating to the national defense of the United States” — and his sentence will be the jail time that he has already served in Britain: 62 months, or just over five years. As the sexual assault investigation he was facing in Sweden has also been dropped, he will be a free man.

He left England’s Belmarsh Prison on Monday, according to WikiLeaks, and departed for the Northern Mariana Islands, where the hearing to sign the plea deal is scheduled for 9 a.m. local time Wednesday (7 p.m. Tuesday Eastern time).

From the U.S. side, the plea deal includes dropping the majority of the 17 violations of the Espionage Act and the hacking charge it had originally brought against Assange. Assange’s lawyers say the 18 counts in the indictment could have brought him up to 175 years in prison.

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

Why is the sentencing in the Northern Mariana Islands?

The unorthodox location is due to Assange’s opposition to traveling to the continental United States to enter his guilty plea, according to the Justice Department filing to the Northern Mariana Islands district court. Assange also preferred the islands because of their proximity to Australia in the western Pacific, it added.

Assange has been fighting U.S. extradition for years, with his attorneys arguing that he would be denied a fair trial there because of his nationality and his political opinions, and arguing that his mental health was too fragile for him to be imprisoned at the supermax federal facility in Florence, Colo., where prisoners can be kept isolated for up to 23 hours a day.

The hearing will take place in Saipan, the largest island and capital of the 14 islands. Afterward, Assange is expected to return to Australia.

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