Julian Assange lands in Canberra a free man after US plea deal

Source: SBS News – Julian Assange’s lawyers speak outside US court in Saipan

Julian Assange landed in Canberra on a private jet as a free man at 7.30pm on Wednesday 26th June 2024.

As part of a plea agreement negotiated between Assange’s legal team and the US  Department of Justice, Assange was earlier flown to Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, a US territory in the northwestern Pacific Ocean. 

This location was chosen due to Assange’s opposition to being transported to continental United States in order to enter a guilty plea, as well as the proximity of the US District Court in Saipan to Australia.

At the court hearing in Saipan during the morning of 26th June, Assange pleaded guilty to the single charge of  ‘conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information’ under the US Espionage Act of 1917. As a result, he received a court-imposed 62-month time-served sentence, reflecting the time that he had been imprisoned in London’s Belmarsh high security prison as a result of the US indictment.

The plea deal was reached after Assange and his legal team had fought extradition to the US for more than a decade.

Immediately following the District Court hearing, Assange’s lawyers Barry Pollack and Jennifer Robinson, addressed local and foreign media who had gathered outside the District Court.

In his remarks, Barry Pollack, a US criminal defence lawyer, made the following key points:

  • The prosecution of Julian Assange was unprecedented in the 107 year history of the US Espionage Act. This act has never been used before by the US to pursue a publisher and journalist like Julian Assange;
  • Assange had revealed truthful, important and newsworthy information, including revelations that the US had committed war crimes in Iraq;
  • He had suffered tremendously in his fight for press freedom and to ensure that the American public and the world community received truthful and important newsworthy information;
  • Today’s hearing brings to an end a case which has been recognized as the greatest threat to the US constitution’s First Amendment in the 21st century. The US pursuit of journalism as a crime has had a chilling effect. It is be hoped that this is the first and last time that this occurs;
  • It was very difficult for Julian Assange to come to Saipan and agree to this plea deal. He was never going to agree to a plea deal that required him to accept the allegations in the original US indictment. These were simply untrue;
  • Assange did not plead guilty to, and would not plead guilty to, the 17 charges based on the Espionage Act and the one charge of computer hacking.
  • He acknowledged that he accepted documents from Chelsea Manning and published many of those documents because it was in the public interest that those documents be published;
  • Unfortunately doing so violates the terms of the Espionage Act. This was  acknowledged in the court today. Assange also stated very clearly that he believes there should be First Amendment protections for the practice of publishing. The Espionage Act , however, does not provide for such protections;
  • Contrary to US claims, chief judge Ramona V Manglona found that no harm was caused by WikiLeaks’ publications. Subsequently these publications had been quoted by every major media outlet on the planet;
  • Assange had to acknowledge what is true. There is nothing that he should be ashamed of. He had certainly received classified information from Chelsea Manning and he had published that information. That, however, should not be a crime;
  • Assange should be proud of the legacy he created and built since founding WikiLeaks in 2006, a web-based ‘dead-letterbox’ for would-be leakers that most major media organisations had now replicated. He had spurred an important discussion in the United States about how to balance national security and freedom of the press;
  • He had stood by his principles by putting up with almost 7 years’ confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy and over 5 years’ incarceration in Belmarsh high security prison.

In her remarks to the media contingent, Jennifer Robinson, Assange’s Australian-born counsel based in London, mentioned the following:

  • Thanks were extended to the many people around the world who supported Assange over the last 14 years and who supported Assange’s legal team in defending him;
  • The existence of the global movement behind Assange to protect free speech contributed to making today’s outcome possible;
  • The Australian people and the Australian government were also thanked for all the support that Assange’s legal team received. In particular, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was thanked for his leadership and his diplomacy in making the outcome possible;
  • Thanks were also extended to Attorney General Mark Dreyfus, Foreign Minister Penny Wong, US ambassador and former prime minister Kevin Rudd, and UK High Commissioner Steven Smith, for their adept and tireless work;
  • Also mentioned were the free speech implications of this case. Assange had suffered for more than 14 years due to the risk of being extradited to the United States. He faced 175 years in prison for publishing evidence of war crimes, human rights abuse and US wrongdoing around the world;
  • Today he pleaded guilty to an offense for publishing information in the public interest for which he had won journalism awards the world over. He had also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year for the past decade;
  • Assange’s prosecution had set a dangerous precedent that should be of concern to journalists everywhere. The US is bent on exercising extraterritorial jurisdiction over all journalists without providing any free speech protections in conformity with the First Amendment;
  • Anyone who cares about free speech and democratic accountability should oppose Assange’s prosecution. Everyone who had stood up and fought for Assange was encouraged to continue the fight against this dangerous precedent;
  • It was hoped that Assange’s release against all the odds and against one of the most powerful governments in the world, would give hope to all journalists and publishers who have been imprisoned around the world.

As indicated above, in order to gain his freedom, Assange pleaded guilty to a single espionage charge after suffering years of confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy and incarceration in Belmarsh high security prison in London. Those responsible for the actual crimes that WikiLeaks exposed – the killing of Reuters journalists and Iraqi civilians by US forces among other crimes – remain scot-free.

By prosecuting Assange for violating the Espionage Act, the US administration has demonstrated its determination to continue intimidating journalists, publishers and activists around the world who dare to reveal its deadly crimes.

The cause of press freedom is advanced by the courageous actions of people like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden who dare to question the conduct of governments and expose their illegality, brutality and crimes.

This noble cause will only survive so long as principled journalists, publishers, whistleblowers and political prisoners continue to speak truth to power and are backed by a global mass movement comprising thousands of people who continue to fight for unfettered journalism, freedom of speech, and justice.

Appeal for donations

To cover the huge USD 520,000 debt for Julian Assange’s private jet travel, his wife Stella Assange, initiated a fundraising campaign.

Using  X, formerly Twitter, she said, “Julian’s travel to freedom comes at a massive cost: Julian will owe USD 520,000 which he is obligated to pay back to the Australian government for charter Flight VJ199.”

“He was not permitted to fly commercial airlines or routes to Saipan and onward to Australia. Any contribution big or small is much appreciated,” she said.

Donations can be made via the following Crowdfunder link: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/free-julian-assange

For information on bitcoin donations received to date, refer to Oliver Knight’s article published by yahoo!finance.

Additional information

BBC News, Julian Assange: A timeline of Wikileaks founder’s case, Jun 26, 2024.

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