Julian Assange is back in Australia a free man. Here’s what we know about his US plea deal | CNN (2024)

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange pled guilty to a single espionage charge in front on a US judge Wednesday and walked free after his 12-year battle against extradition to the United States ended in a plea deal.

The controversial figure was released from a British prison on Monday and flew by charter jet to a remote US territory in the Pacific where he officially entered his guilty plea and was sentenced to time already served. He then flew onward to Australia, arriving in his home nation as a free man on Wednesday night.

The 52-year-old has spent the past five years in the high-security prison in southeast London and nearly seven years before that holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in the British capital,trying to avoid arrest that could have led to life imprisonment.

On Monday, Assange agreed to plead guilty to a felony charge related to his alleged role in one of the largest US government breaches of classified materials after his whistleblowing website published nearly half a million secret military documents relating to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The plea deal caps a years-long legal saga that has spanned multiple continents.

Here’s what we know:

Where is Assange?

Assange boarded a flight from London’s Stansted airport on Monday after being released on bail from prison, according toastatementfrom WikiLeaks on Tuesday.

“Julian Assange is free,” WikiLeaks said. “He left Belmarsh maximum security prison on the morning of 24 June, after having spent 1,901 days there.”

Traveling with Australia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Stephen Smith, Assange flew to Saipan, the largest island and capital of the remote Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific.

Under the terms of the agreement, US Justice Department prosecutors sought a 62-month sentence – which is equal to the amount of time Assange served inthe United Kingdom while he fought extradition.

The plea dealcredited that time served, allowing Assange to immediately return to Australia.

With Assange resistant to setting foot in the continental US to enter his guilty plea, a judge conducted the hearing and sentencing together on Wednesday in Saipan, where a US federal district court is located.

“It appears that your 62 months imprisonment is fair and reasonable,” Judge Ramona Manglona said in her sentencing. “You will be able to walk out of this courtroom a free man.”

The Pacific island chain is a US territory some 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) west of Hawaii andcloser toAustralia, where Assange is a citizen and traveled onto next.

Julian Assange is back in Australia a free man. Here’s what we know about his US plea deal | CNN (1)

A photo of Julian Assange shared by Wikileaks on X, with a caption that reads, 'Approaching Bangkok airport for layover. Moving closer to freedom.'

What did Assange do?

Assange was wanted byUS authorities onespionage chargesconnected to Wikileaks’ publication ofhundreds of thousands of sensitive military and government documents supplied byformer Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manningin 2010 and 2011.

The US accused Assange of endangering the lives of confidential sources by releasing the unfiltered cables and had for years been seeking his extradition.

He faced 18 charges for his alleged role in the breach and faced a maximum of up to 175 years in prison. British authorities had sought reassurances from the US that he would not receive the death penalty.

From Townsville, eastern Queensland, Assange started WikiLeaks in 2006 as an online repository that would publish anonymously submitted material, including the US military’s operating manual for its detention camp in Guantanamo Bay and internal documents from theChurch of Scientology.

In 2010, WikiLeaks was catapulted to global attention when it released video that claimed to show a deadly 2007 US helicopter attack in Iraq.

Soon after, WikiLeaks released thousands of classified US military documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a trove of diplomatic cables.

Assange described the documents previously to CNN as “compelling evidence of war crimes” committed by US-led coalition and Iraqi government forces.

Julian Assange is back in Australia a free man. Here’s what we know about his US plea deal | CNN (2)

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange waves after arriving at Canberra Airport in Canberra, Australia, on June 26.

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Assange holds a copy of The Guardian newspaper in London on July 26, 2010, a day after WikiLeaks posted more than 90,000 classified documents related to the Afghanistan War.

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Assange attends a seminar at the Swedish Trade Union Confederation in Stockholm on August 14, 2010. Six days later, Swedish prosecutors issued a warrant for his arrest based on allegations of sexual assault from two women. Assange has always denied wrongdoing in that case, and years later Swedish prosecutors eventually dropped their investigations.

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Assange, in London, displays a page from WikiLeaks on October 23, 2010. The day before, WikiLeaks released approximately 400,000 classified military documents from the Iraq War.

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Assange and his bodyguards are seen after a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, in November 2010. It was the month WikiLeaks began releasing diplomatic cables from US embassies.

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Assange sits behind the tinted window of a police vehicle in London on December 14, 2010. Assange had turned himself in to London authorities on December 7 and was released on bail and put on house arrest on December 16. In February 2011, a judge ruled in support of Assange's extradition to Sweden. Assange's lawyers filed an appeal.

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In October 2011, a month after WikiLeaks released more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables, Assange speaks to demonstrators from the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

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Assange leaves the High Court in London in December 2011. He was taking his extradition case to the British Supreme Court.

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Assange leaves the Supreme Court in February 2012. In May of that year, the court denied his appeal against extradition.

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Assange addresses the media and his supporters from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on August 19, 2012. A few days earlier, Ecuador announced that it had granted asylum to Assange. In his public address, Assange demanded that the United States drop its "witch hunt" against WikiLeaks.

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Assange speaks from a window of the Ecuadorian Embassy in December 2012.

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Assange addresses the Oxford Union Society from the Ecuadorian Embassy in January 2013.

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Assange appears with Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino on the balcony of the embassy in June 2013.

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Assange speaks during a panel discussion at the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, in March 2014.

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Assange attends a news conference inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in August 2014.

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Assange is seen on a video screen in March 2015, during an event on the sideline of a United Nations Human Rights Council session.

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Assange, on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy, holds up a United Nations report in February 2016. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said that Assange was being arbitrarily detained by the governments of Sweden and the United Kingdom.

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Assange speaks to the media in May 2017, after Swedish prosecutors had dropped their investigation of rape allegations against Assange. But Assange acknowledged he was unlikely to walk out of the embassy any time soon. "The UK has said it will arrest me regardless," he said. "The US CIA Director (Mike) Pompeo and the US attorney general have said that I and other WikiLeaks staff have no ... First Amendment rights, that my arrest and the arrest (of) my other staff is a priority. That is not acceptable."

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Assange was seen for the first time in months during a hearing via teleconference in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2018. The hearing was then postponed due to translation difficulties.

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A van displays images of Assange and Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst who supplied thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in April 2019. A senior Ecuadorian official at the time said no decision had been made to expel Assange from the embassy. According to WikiLeaks tweets, sources had told the organization that Assange could be kicked out of the embassy within "hours to days."

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A screen grab from video footage shows the dramatic moment when Assange was hauled out of the Ecuadorian Embassy by police in April 2019. Assange was arrested for "failing to surrender to the court" over a warrant issued in 2012. Officers made the initial move to detain Arrange after Ecuador withdrew his asylum and invited authorities into the embassy, citing his bad behavior.

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Assange gestures from a police vehicle after arriving at the Westminster Magistrates' Court in London in April 2019.

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Assange is seen through the window of a prison van as he is driven into the Southwark Crown Court in London in May 2019. He was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for breaching his bail conditions in 2012.

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A sketch depicts Assange appearing at the Old Bailey courthouse in London for a ruling in his extradition case in January 2021. A judge rejected a US request to extradite Assange, saying that such a move would be "oppressive" by reason of his mental health. That ruling was overturned in December by two senior judges.

Julian Assange is back in Australia a free man. Here’s what we know about his US plea deal | CNN (26)

Assange boards a plane at a location given as London, in this still image from video released on June 25 by WikiLeaks via X.

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves the United States District Court in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, US, following a hearing on June 26. Assange pled guilty to a single count of conspiracy to obtain and disseminate national defence information and left for his native Australia as a free man.

Julian Assange is back in Australia a free man. Here’s what we know about his US plea deal | CNN (28)

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange waves as he arrives in Australia on June 26.

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Assange kisses his wife Stella Assange as he arrives in Canberra on June 26.

In pictures: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

Fight against extradition

Assange had long argued the case against him was politically motivated, that he would not face a fair trial, and his handover would violate the European Convention on Human Rights.

Free speech advocates condemned the extradition attempt, saying it would have a chilling effect on press freedom.

In August 2010, Assange was accused of sexual assault in Sweden and faced an international arrest warrant. He denied the allegations as “a smear campaign” and refused to go to Stockholm for questioning.

He turned himself in to British authorities but while out on bail in 2012 as he appealed extradition to Sweden, Assange fled to the Ecuadorian Embassy requesting political asylum.

A photo of Julian Assange shared by Wikileaks on X, with a caption that reads, 'Approaching Bangkok airport for layover. Moving closer to freedom.' Handout/WikiLeaks via X Related article Inside the decadelong, global pursuit of Julian Assange that ended in a plea deal met with praise and scorn

During his time in the embassy, WikiLeaks kept up its data dumps, including in 2016 when it released thousands of emails apparently hacked from the Democratic National Committee and emails stolen from the private email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, on the eve of the US election.

But over time, his relationship with his host soured and Ecuador’s president came under pressure from the USto expel him from the diplomatic bolthole.

In 2019, Assange was pulled from the embassy by London’s Metroplitan Police on an extradition warrant from the US Justice Department, and spent the next five years livingmostly isolated, in a 3-by-2-meter cell at Belmarsh prison.

The prison has capacity for more than 900 inmates and is known for once housing infamous terror suspects such as the radical Egyptian cleric Abu Hamza al-Masriwithin its high-security unit.

Julian Assange is back in Australia a free man. Here’s what we know about his US plea deal | CNN (31)

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange makes his way as he leaves the United States District Court following a hearing, in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, on June 26, 2024.

Support for Assange’s release

There has recently been increased pressure for Assange’s case to be resolved.

In May, London’s High Court ruled that Assangehad the right to appeal in his final challenge against extradition to the US, and US President Joe Biden had alluded to a possible deal pushed by Australian government officials in April.

ASSANGE: KEY MOMENTS

  • 2006: Julian Assange founds whistleblowing website, WikiLeaks.
  • Apr 2010: WikiLeaks posts video showing a US helicopter killing civilians in Iraq in 2007.
  • Jul 2010: WikiLeaks posts classified documents related to the Afghanistan war.
  • Aug 2010: Sweden launches probe of Assange after claims of sexual assault emerge, which he denies.
  • Jun 2012: Assange enters Ecuadorian embassy in London seeking political asylum.
  • Apr 2019: British police arrest Assange on behalf of the US, requests his extradition after Ecuador withdraws his asylum.
  • Jun 2022: UK home secretary signs his extradition order, which he later appeals.
  • May 2024: Assange wins permission to bring new extradition appeal.
  • Jun 2024: Assange strikes US plea deal allowing him to leave UK prison and return to Australia.

    The UN special rapporteur on torture and Amnesty International were among those who called on the United Kingdom to halt the possible extradition, citing concerns over the risk of abuse and other ill-treatment if Assange was sent to the US.

    Upon his release Monday, Assange’s wife, StellaAssange, posted on social media, “Julian is free!”

    “Words cannot express our immense gratitude to YOU- yes YOU, who have all mobilised for years and years to make this come true,” she wrote.

    Assange’s mother, Christine Assange, said she is “grateful that my son’s ordeal is finally coming to an end,” in a statement obtained by CNN on Tuesday.

    Speaking in parliament Wednesday, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he was “pleased that (Assange) was on his way home to Australia to reunite with his family.”

    “This outcome has been the product of careful, patient and determined work,” Albanese said, adding “this is what standing up for Australians around the world looks like.”

    Former Ecuadorian president Lenín Moreno told CNN he is glad the WikiLeaks founder won’t be handed over to the US. Moreno withdrewAssange’s asylum in April 2019, which hadallowed him to stay at the South American country’s embassy in London.

    Among those celebrating Assange’s release were the presidents of Colombia and Mexico. “Assange’s eternal imprisonment and torture was an attack on press freedom on a global scale,” said Colombian President Gustavo Petro.

    Meanwhile, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the UK political monthly Prospect Magazine who previously collaborated with Assange, said in a post on X that it was “good news that Assange is apparently free.”

    He continued, “Enough was enough. But his treatment was a warning to journalists and whistleblowers to keep quiet in future. And I suspect it will have worked.”

    This story has been updated with additional developments.

    CNN’s Lucas Lilieholm, Manveena Suri, Claudia Rebaza, Katelyn Polantz, Holmes Lybrand, Evan Perez, Devan Cole, Mauricio Torres and Stefano Pozzebon contributed reporting.

    Julian Assange is back in Australia a free man. Here’s what we know about his US plea deal | CNN (2024)

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