Julian Assange pleads guilty, leaves courtroom a free man

Now, about that bill for the private jet that's taking him home to Australia …

Julian Assange is a free man.

The founder of WikiLeaks on Wednesday appeared in the US District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands before the Honorable Ramona V Manglona, who asked how he pled to Conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information – a single charge rather than the 18 the US department of Justice previously hoped to bring.

Assange reportedly responded "Guilty to the information" – as anticipated as part of a plea deal that emerged on Monday, under which he would admit guilt to one charge in return for his freedom.

Judge Manglona accepted that plea as an admission of guilt, ordered a short recess, then heard arguments from a US government lawyer who suggested a sentence of 62 months was appropriate – again, as expected under the US government's deal with Assange.

The judge duly agreed, noting that Assange had already served that amount of time in UK jails, and that he would therefore leave the court a free man.

She also wished him happy birthday in advance for next Wednesday and said: "I hope there will be some peace restored."

Assange has had little peace since 2010, when two important elements of his story took place: WikiLeaks started to publish leaks of US material, and Swedish authorities issued a European arrest warrant regarding allegations of sexual assault.

US authorities were enraged by the material WikiLeaks published, as it contained diplomatic cables, sensitive material pertaining to national security, and the notorious "Collateral Murder" video depicting a US helicopter crew attacking and killing Iraqi civilians.

After the publication of those leaks, Assange feared that if he appeared in a Swedish court US authorities would attempt to extradite him. By then back in the UK, he appealed his extradition to Sweden to face the sexual assault allegations and was granted bail on condition he reside in a certain place and regularly report to police.

But in 2012, Assange broke conditions of his bail and holed up Ecuador's UK embassy after being granted asylum. He remained there until 2019. In the intervening years, Sweden dropped its case – but US authorities prepared an indictment that would mean UK authorities could arrest him if he left the embassy.

Ecuador eventually revoked Assange's asylum and he left the embassy, prompting his arrest by UK authorities for breaching his bail conditions.

Once jailed on that charge, US extradition attempts commenced in earnest. Assange fought back, leading to numerous cases that reached a crescendo in May 2024 when the High Court ruled Assange could appeal his extradition to the US.

That outcome, it appears, landed with a thud in Washington. Officials, realizing that years more litigation was likely, increased efforts to pursue an alternative resolution to the case. By that time president Biden had already said he was "considering" an end to the case against Assange.

Aussie back channel

Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese today suggested his government had been urging US officials to resolve the Assange situation for some time.

At a press conference today Albanese said of Assange's hearing "This isn't something that has happened in the last 24 hours. This is something that has been considered, patient, worked through in a calibrated way." Albanese stated that in all his time as opposition leader and PM – dating back to May 2019 – "I've been very clear … that regardless of your views about Mr Assange's activities, his case has dragged on for too long. There is nothing to be gained from his continued incarceration, and we want him brought home to Australia."

Assange arrived in the Mariana Islands earlier on Wednesday after flying from the UK, with a brief stopover in Thailand. He quickly left the islands and at the time of writing was reportedly aboard a private jet that is evidently bound for Canberra, Australia's capital.

Assange's wife, Stella, has urged supporters to help pay the £520,000 ($660,000) cost of her husband's flights and other recovery expenses with a crowdfunding campaign.

Ms Assange has said Julian intends to recuperate and enjoy the company of his children and nature in the short term. She's also pushing for a full pardon – advancing the argument that he is a journalist to be celebrated for exposing uncomfortable truths.

Others feel he is a traitor, or else a journalist whose sloppiness deserves censure. In late 2015, WikiLeaks published Saudi Arabian documents without redacting personal information describing vulnerable people. It then exposed the details of donors to the US Democratic Party in the 2016 dump of emails from the DNC's campaign and communications department. The timing of that dump – which landed weeks before the US election and showed presidential candidate Hilary Clinton in a poor light – has shaped another common opinion of Assange: a figure exploited by the Kremlin as part of its attempts to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election.

Assange's admission of guilt to an offence under the US Espionage Act has created another persona: the unfortunate harbinger of a new era of secrecy. That law was not intended to be used against journalists, so the conclusion of his case is therefore seen by some as the beginning of a new time of danger for us all. A precedent has been set – that certain types of journalism won't be tolerated. ®

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