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Julian Assange pleads guilty to US charges, ending 14-year drama

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at the United States Courthouse, where he is expected to enter a guilty plea to an espionage charge ahead of his expected release, on Wednesday, June 26, 2024, in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Julian Assange pleaded guilty to leaking U.S. national security secrets, ending a 14-year legal drama that has seen him spend time in U.K. jails and self-imposed exile in a London embassy.

The Wikileaks founder entered the plea in a U.S. courtroom in Saipan a few hours after arriving in the U.S. territory following his release from a London jail on Monday, according to the Associated Press. Under a deal with federal prosecutors, the 52-year-old’s next stop will be his native Australia.

The agreement resolves an international fight to prosecute Assange that has been underway since sensitive U.S. military documents, war logs and diplomatic cables were publicly leaked in 2010 and 2011, including footage of a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad a few years earlier.

While Assange will avoid a lengthy prison sentence — the plea deal gives him credit for the five years he spent in a high-security UK prison as he fought extradition to the US — Wikileaks is raising funds on his behalf to cover what it says is an additional “half a million U.S. dollars” he must pay.

In one of the largest breaches of state secrets in U.S. history, Assange was accused of assisting Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in obtaining around 750,000 classified or sensitive documents. Manning was convicted of leaking classified material in 2013, but then-President Barack Obama commuted her 35-year prison sentence in 2017.

Assange and Manning unlawfully conspired “to receive and obtain documents, writings, and notes connected with the national defense, including such materials classified up to the SECRET level,” according to a four-page filing by the Justice Department.

The leaks and an unrelated Swedish rape investigation that triggered his years on the run gained Assange global notoriety. He was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in a 2013 film about the early days of Wikileaks and was frequently lampooned on Saturday Night Live as a shadowy and mysterious figure.

The U.S. criminally charged Assange in 2019 under the Trump administration with violating the Espionage Act and was seeking to extradite him from the U.K., where he has been in prison ever since. The initial charges — 17 related to espionage and one to computer misuse — carried a maximum penalty of 175 years in prison if he was found guilty on all counts, although sentences for federal crimes are typically less than that.

But the U.S. charges came years after the Swedish investigation, which led to his being detained in 2010 in London. Assange said the Swedish case was politically motivated, and after months of fighting extradition while on bail fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Those charges were dropped in 2017, but Assange remained in a small apartment in the embassy as he continued to dodge U.K. police and American prosecutors.

Ecuador dropped his asylum status in 2019, leading to his dramatic arrest early one morning in April of that year. That kicked off his incarceration in London’s Belmarsh prison and another five years of legal wrangling as he fought the U.S. charges before the current deal was hammered out.


(With assistance from Katharine Gemmell, Jennifer Jacobs and Justin Sink.)


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