WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange stops in Bangkok on way to US court, later released

A plane carrying Julian Assange landed in Bangkok on Tuesday, just as the WikiLeaks founder was due to fly there. Negotiating with the US Government This would free him and resolve a legal case that had spanned years and continents over the publication of classified documents.

Chartered flight VJT199 landed at Don Muang International Airport, north of the Thai capital, shortly after noon. Airport officials told The Associated Press the plane was in Bangkok only to refuel and was scheduled to leave Tuesday evening for Saipan, the capital of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific, where he was scheduled to appear in court Wednesday morning local time.

He is expected to plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge of conspiring to illegally obtain and transmit classified national defense information, according to a paper filed with the court by the US Justice Department.

Assange is expected to return to his home country of Australia after his plea and sentencing. Prosecutors said the hearing was being held in Saipan because Assange is opposed to travelling to the continental US and the court’s proximity to Australia.

The guilty plea, which must be approved by a judge, brings an abrupt conclusion to a criminal case of international conspiracy and ends the U.S. government’s years-long pursuit of a publisher whose hugely popular secret-sharing website had made him a cause célèbre. Famous Many press freedom advocates have said he acted as a journalist to expose wrongdoings by the US military. In contrast, investigators have repeatedly claimed his actions violated laws designed to protect sensitive information and endangered the country’s national security.

In a statement posted on X, WikiLeaks said Assange boarded a plane on Monday, leaving the British prison where he has spent the past five years. WikiLeaks praised the announcement of the deal, saying it was “grateful to all those who stood with us, fought for us and remained fully committed to the fight for his freedom”.

“WikiLeaks publishes important stories about government corruption and human rights abuses, and holds powerful people accountable for their actions. As editor-in-chief, Julian paid a heavy price for these principles and the public’s right to know,” WikiLeaks said.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has been lobbying the United States to end the prosecution against Assange, told parliament that an Australian envoy had accompanied Assange from London.

“Whatever public opinion of Mr Assange’s actions, this case has dragged on for too long. There is no benefit in continuing to keep him in prison and we want him returned to Australia,” Mr Albanese said.

The deal ensured Assange would plead guilty and not serve any additional prison time. He had spent years in hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after Swedish authorities sought his arrest over rape allegations, before being locked up in the United Kingdom.

Assange is expected to be sentenced to the five years he has already spent in a UK prison while he fights extradition to the US to face charges, a process that is playing out over a series of hearings in London. Last month, he won the right to appeal against the extradition order after his lawyers argued the US government had given “manifestly inadequate” assurances that he would enjoy the same freedom of expression protections as an American citizen if extradited from Britain.

Assange has been hailed by many around the world as a hero who exposed military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. The files published by WikiLeaks included a video of a 2007 attack by US forces on an Apache helicopter in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

But his reputation has also been tarnished by rape allegations, which he has denied.

A 2019 Justice Department indictment accused Assange of encouraging and helping US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks published in 2010. Prosecutors accused Assange of harming national security by publishing documents that harmed the US and its allies and aided its adversaries.

Prosecutors said in an indictment filed in connection with the plea agreement that Assange conspired with Manning to obtain documents, notes and other writings relating to the national defense and to “knowingly communicate” those records. The document notes that Assange “was not a citizen of the United States, did not hold a U.S. security clearance, and did not have the authority to possess, access or control documents, writings or notes relating to the national defense of the United States, including classified information.”

The case was heavily criticised by press advocates and Assange supporters. Federal prosecutors defended it, saying it was more than a journalist gathering information; it was an attempt to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified government documents.

The plea agreement comes months after President Joe Biden said he was considering a request from Australia to drop the U.S. effort to prosecute Assange. The White House was not involved in the decision to settle Assange’s case, according to a White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Assange made headlines in 2016 when his website published Democratic emails that prosecutors say were stolen by Russian intelligence officers. He was never charged in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, but the probe provided stark details of how the hacking operation played a role in interfering in that year’s election on behalf of then-Republican candidate Donald Trump.

During the Obama administration, Justice Department officials considered charges against Assange, but were unsure whether the case would stand up in court and concerned that it would not be fair to prosecute him for the same acts as traditional journalists.

However, that stance changed under the Trump administration, when former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 called Assange’s arrest a priority.

Assange’s family and supporters say the legal battle, which has spanned more than a decade, has taken a toll on his physical and mental health.

Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 and was granted political asylum after courts in England ruled against his extradition to Sweden as part of a rape investigation in the Scandinavian country. He was arrested by British police in 2019 after the Ecuadorian government withdrew his asylum status and then sent to jail for skipping bail when he first took refuge inside the embassy.

Although Sweden eventually dropped the sex crimes investigation because too much time had passed, Assange remained in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison during his extradition battle with the United States.

Published on:

June 25, 2024