Sunday July 14th, 2024 10:26PM

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange lands in Saipan before guilty plea in deal with U.S. securing his freedom

By The Associated Press

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (AP) — A plane carrying Julian Assange has landed in Saipan ahead of the WikiLeaks founder’s expected guilty plea in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will set him free to return home to Australia.

Assange will appear Wednesday in the U.S. federal court in the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Western Pacific.

Under the deal, which was disclosed in court papers on Monday, Assange will plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defense information.

Prosecutors have agreed to a sentence of the five years Assange has already served in a high-security British prison while fighting extradition to the U.S. to face charges. After the hearing, he is expected to return to Australia.

The case stems from WikiLeaks’ publication more than a decade ago of hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. military documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

SAIPAN (AP) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will appear in court Wednesday to plead guilty to a felony for publishing U.S. military secrets under a deal that will set him free to return home to Australia after years holed up and imprisoned while fighting extradition to America.

The hearing, which will take place in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific, is the stunning culmination of the U.S. government's yearslong pursuit of the publisher who has been painted both as a hero and a reckless criminal for exposing hundreds of thousands of sensitive military documents.

A private jet carrying Assange is expected to land in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, ahead of the hearing, where Assange 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 agreed to hold the hearing on the remote island because Assange opposed coming to the continental U.S. and because it's near Australia, where he will return after he enters his plea.

The deal — disclosed Monday night in court papers — represents the final chapter in a more than decade-long legal odyssey over the fate of the eccentric computer expert, whose hugely popular secret-sharing website made him a cause célèbre among press freedom advocates who said he acted as a journalist to expose U.S. military wrongdoing. U.S. prosecutors have said his actions recklessly put the country's national security at risk.

Though the deal with prosecutors requires Assange to admit guilt to a single felony count, it also allows him to avoid spending any time in an American prison. He will get credit for the five years he has already spent in a high-security British prison while fighting extradition to the U.S. to face charges. Before being locked up in London, Assange spent years hiding out in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault, which he has denied.

The abrupt conclusion enables both sides to claim a degree of success, with the Justice Department able to resolve without trial a case that raised thorny legal issues and that might never have reached a jury at all given the plodding pace of the extradition process.

Last month, Assange won the right to appeal an extradition order after his lawyers argued that the U.S. government provided “blatantly inadequate” assurances that he would have the same free speech protections as an American citizen if extradited from Britain.

His wife, Stella Assange, told the BBC from Australia that it had been “touch and go” over 72 hours whether the deal would go ahead but she felt “elated” at the news. A lawyer who married the WikiLeaks founder in prison in 2022, she said details of the agreement would be made public once the judge had signed off on it.

“He will be a free man once it is signed off by a judge,” she said, adding that she still didn't think it was real.

Assange on Monday left the London prison, where he has spent the last five years, after being granted bail during a secret hearing last week. He boarded a plane that landed hours later in Bangkok to refuel before taking off again toward Saipan. A video posted by WikiLeaks on X, showed Assange staring intently out the window at the blue sky as the plane headed toward the island.

“Imagine. From over 5 years in a small cell in a maximum security prison. Nearly 14 years detained in the UK. To this,” WikiLeaks wrote. The top Australian diplomat in the United Kingdom accompanied Assange on the flight.

The guilty plea resolves a criminal case brought by Republican President Donald Trump's administration over the receipt and publication of war logs and diplomatic cables that detailed U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prosecutors alleged that Assange conspired with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to obtain the records and published them without regard to American national security, including by releasing the names of human sources who provided information to U.S. forces.

Former Vice President Mike Pence called the new arrangement a “miscarriage of justice," writing on X that Assange "endangered the lives of our troops in a time of war and should have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

But Assange's activities drew an outpouring of support from press freedom advocates, who heralded his role in bringing to light military conduct that might otherwise have been concealed from view. Among the files published by WikiLeaks was a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

Australia for years has been calling on the U.S. government to drop the case against Assange, arguing there's a disconnect between the treatment of Assange and Manning. Then-U.S. President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence to seven years, which allowed her release in 2017.

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

Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 and was granted political asylum after courts in England ruled he should be extradited to Sweden as part of a rape investigation in the Scandinavian country. He was arrested by British police after Ecuador’s government withdrew his asylum status in 2019 and then jailed for skipping bail when he first took shelter inside the embassy.

Although Sweden eventually dropped its sex crimes investigation because so much time had elapsed, Assange had remained in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison during the extradition fight with the U.S.

Assange made headlines again in 2016 after his website published Democratic emails that prosecutors say were stolen by Russian intelligence operatives. He was never charged in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, but the inquiry laid bare in stark detail the role that the hacking operation played in interfering in that year’s election on behalf of Trump.

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Tucker reported from Fort Pierce, Florida, and Durkin Richer from Washington. Associated Press writers Colleen Long in Washington, Napat Kongsawad and David Rising in Bangkok, Jill Lawless and Brian Melley in London and Rod McGuirk in Melbourne, Australia, contributed to this report.

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