Sunday July 14th, 2024 11:05PM

Australian leaders cautiously welcome expected plea that could bring WikiLeaks founder Assange home

By The Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Australian leaders cautiously welcomed an expected plea agreement that could set free Julian Assange, who was pursued for years over WikiLeaks' publication of a trove of classified documents.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Tuesday there was nothing to be gained by keeping the Australian incarcerated.

A plane thought to be carrying Assange landed Tuesday in Bangkok as he heads to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific midway between Australia and Japan, where he is expected to appear in a U.S. federal court Wednesday local time.

He is expected to plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defense information, the U.S. Justice Department said in a letter filed in court.

Assange is expected to return to Australia if a judge accepts the plea agreement.

Public support for Assange has grown in Australia during the seven years he has spent avoiding extradition to the United States by hiding in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London and later during his five years in Belmarsh Prison.

Albanese has been lobbying since his government was elected in 2022 for the United States to end its prosecution of Assange.

Assange’s plight was seen as a test of Albanese’s leverage with the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden.

Albanese told Parliament that Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Stephen Smith had flown with Assange from London.

“The government is certainly aware that Australian citizen Mr. Julian Assange has legal proceedings scheduled in the United States. While this is a welcome development, we recognize that these proceedings are crucial and they’re delicate,” Albanese told Parliament.

“Regardless of the views that people have about Mr. Assange’s activities, the case has dragged on for too long. There’s nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia,” Albanese added.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong acknowledged the advocacy of a range of lawmakers on Assange’s behalf, including the four Bring Julian Assange Parliamentary Group co-convenors who traveled to Washington last year with a letter signed by 60 Australian lawmakers calling for the prosecution to end.

Wong said Albanese had led the Australian effort, personally raising Assange with Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

“We want to see Mr. Assange reunited with his family in Australia,” Wong told the Senate.

Australia had argued there was a disconnect between the U.S. treatment of Assange and U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, a WikiLeaks source. Then-U.S. President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence to seven years, which allowed her release in 2017.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pushed back against Albanese’s position during a visit to Australia last year, saying Assange was accused of “very serious criminal conduct” in publishing a trove of classified U.S. documents more than a decade ago.

Support for Assange crossed political party lines in Australia.

Opposition lawmaker and Assange supporter Barnaby Joyce, a former deputy prime minister, said the plea deal was an encouraging development.

“We’ve just got to be still cautious, still cautious on how this proceeds because the end has not arrived,” Joyce told reporters in Australia’s Parliament House.

Joyce said Assange should not prosecuted because be committed no offense in the United States.

“If you ask me do I think what he did was morally correct? no, it wasn’t,” Joyce said. “But the issue for me is extraterritoriality.”

Opposition spokesman on foreign affairs Simon Birmingham also welcomed the apparent end to the prosecution.

“We have consistently said that the US and UK justice systems should be respected,” Birmingham said on social media.

“We welcome the fact that Mr. Assange’s decision to plead guilty will bring this long running saga to an end,” Birmingham added.

A motion that called for the United States and Britain to bring the “matter to a close so that Mr. Assange can return home to his family in Australia” was supported by 86 lawmakers including Albanese in the 151-seat House of Representatives in February.

“Regardless of where people stand, this thing cannot just go on and on and on indefinitely,” Albanese told Parliament at the time.

Assange’s mother, Christine Assange, said the plea deal “shows the importance and power of quiet diplomacy.”

“I am grateful that my son’s ordeal is finally coming to an end,” his mother said in a statement.

His father John Shipton used a radio interview with Australian Broadcasting Corp. in Melbourne to thank his son’s supporters.

“It looks as though Julian will be free to come back to Australia and my thanks and congratulations to all his supporters in Australia who made it possible and of course Prime Minister Anthony Albanese,” Shipton said.

Julian Assange was living in the Ecuadorean Embassy in 2013 when he made failed bid for election to the Australian Senate as a candidate for the short-lived WiliLeaks Party.

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP World News
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