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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange lands in Canberra after US deal, reunites with family amid cheers (WATCH)

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, returned to Australia aboard a charter jet on Wednesday, after reaching a plea deal with US prosecutors.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange lands in Canberra after US deal, reunites with family amid cheers (WATCH) snt
First Published Jun 26, 2024, 4:00 PM IST

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, returned to Australia aboard a charter jet on Wednesday, after reaching a plea deal with US prosecutors. Earlier, he had pleaded guilty to charges related to obtaining and publishing US military secrets, marking the conclusion of a long legal battle. According to reports from The Guardian, Assange was warmly welcomed by family and supporters upon landing in Canberra.

The long-standing criminal case of international significance reached an unexpected conclusion as Julian Assange, 52, entered his plea in a US district court in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands. This American territory in the Pacific, near Assange's native Australia, facilitated his avoidance of entering the continental United States.

Assange traveled from a London prison to Saipan aboard a charter jet and continued on the same aircraft to Australia's capital, Canberra, all on the same day. He was accompanied on these flights by Australian Ambassador to the United States Kevin Rudd and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Stephen Smith, both instrumental in negotiating his release with London and Washington.

Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles stated that the flights were financed by the "Assange team," with the Australian government assisting in facilitating the transportation.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese informed Parliament that Julian Assange's release, following his five-year incarceration in a British prison while fighting extradition to the US, was achieved through his government's diligent and persistent efforts.

“Over the two years since we took office, my government has engaged and advocated including at leader-level to resolve this. We have used all appropriate channels," the Australian PM said.

Outside the Saipan court, Assange's lawyer Jennifer Robinson expressed gratitude to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for his statesmanship, principled leadership, and diplomacy, which were instrumental in achieving this outcome.

It remains uncertain where Assange will go next from Canberra and what his future plans entail. His wife, Stella Assange, a lawyer from South Africa and mother of their two children, has been in Australia for several days, anticipating his release.

Barry Pollack, another of Julian Assange's lawyers, anticipates that his client will continue his outspoken advocacy and campaigning efforts.

“WikiLeaks’s work will continue and Mr. Assange, I have no doubt, will be a continuing force for freedom of speech and transparency in government,” Pollack told reporters outside the Saipan court.

Ahead of his son's arrival, Assange's father, John Shipton, expressed hope that the iconoclastic internet publisher would return to embrace the "great beauty of everyday life."

“He will be able to spend quality time with his wife, Stella, and his two children, be able to walk up and down the beach and feel the sand through his toes in winter, that lovely chill,” Shipton told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Under the plea deal, Assange admitted guilt to a single felony count but was allowed to return to Australia without serving time in an American prison. The judge credited him with the five years he had already spent in UK custody while fighting extradition to the US on charges under the Espionage Act, which could have led to a substantial prison term if convicted. Prior to his UK detention, Assange had spent seven years in asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

The resolution allows both parties to find a measure of satisfaction.

For the Justice Department, facing a defendant who had already served significant jail time, the case was resolved without a trial, addressing complex legal issues that may have never reached a jury due to the slow extradition process. Assange, on his part, indicated a reluctant acceptance of the outcome, stating in court that while he believed the Espionage Act contradicted the First Amendment, he acknowledged the consequences of soliciting and publishing classified information.

The plea deal, revealed in a brief Justice Department letter on Monday night, marks what is likely the final chapter in the legal saga involving the controversial Australian computer expert. Celebrated by supporters as a champion of transparency and criticized by national security advocates who argue his actions endangered lives and went beyond traditional journalistic norms, Assange's case has stirred considerable debate and scrutiny.

The criminal case pursued by the Trump administration's Justice Department focused on Assange's receipt and publication of hundreds of thousands of war logs and diplomatic cables, which disclosed US military misconduct in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Prosecutors alleged that Assange collaborated with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to obtain these records, including through a conspiracy to crack a Defense Department computer password, and subsequently published them without regard for American national security. They argued that the disclosures included the names of human sources who provided information to US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite these allegations, Assange received widespread support from advocates of press freedom. They praised his role in uncovering military actions that might otherwise have remained hidden from public scrutiny and expressed concerns about the potential chilling effect on journalism. Among the materials published by WikiLeaks was a video showing a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by US forces in Baghdad, resulting in the deaths of 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

In 2019, an indictment against Assange was unsealed, marking a continuation of his legal challenges that began long before and persisted thereafter.

Following the release of a vast document cache in 2010, Assange faced legal troubles when a Swedish prosecutor issued an arrest warrant over allegations of rape and molestation. Assange denied these allegations, and the investigation was eventually dropped.

Seeking asylum in 2012 at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Assange claimed protection from political persecution. He remained there in self-exile for seven years, receiving visits from celebrities and occasionally addressing supporters from the embassy's balcony.

In 2019, Ecuador revoked his asylum, leading to Assange's arrest by British police. He has since been incarcerated for five years while the US Justice Department sought his extradition, a process met with skepticism from British judges concerned about his treatment in the US.

Contrary to fears of severe consequences voiced by Assange and his supporters, including the possibility of the death penalty, the recent outcome in the US has spared him prison time, as prosecutors did not seek such penalties.

Recently, Assange secured the right to appeal an extradition order, arguing inadequate assurances from the US government regarding his free speech protections if extradited from Britain.

Stella Assange, his wife in Australia, expressed relief and elation following uncertain moments leading up to recent developments.

On Monday, Assange left the London prison where he had been held for five years, having been granted bail during a discreet hearing the previous week.


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