Assange Pleads Guilty in Deal With US, Avoiding Prison

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a single count of conspiring to obtain and disclose information related to national defense. This plea ends a lengthy legal battle stemming from the leak of military secrets, a case that sparked debates about press freedom, national security, and the traditional boundaries of journalism.

The plea was entered Wednesday morning in federal court in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, an American territory in the Pacific.

Assange acknowledged that he believed the Espionage Act, under which he was charged, contradicted his First Amendment rights but accepted that encouraging sources to provide classified information for publication could be unlawful.

“I believe the and the Espionage Act are in contradiction with each other but I accept that it would be difficult to win such a case given all these circumstances,” he reportedly said in court. 

As part of the plea deal, Assange will be allowed to return to his native Australia without serving any time in an American prison. He had been incarcerated in the United Kingdom for the past five years while fighting extradition to the United States.

A conviction could have resulted in a lengthy prison sentence. 

WikiLeaks, the secret-revealing website founded by Assange in 2006, welcomed the deal, expressing gratitude for “all who stood by us, fought for us, and remained utterly committed in the fight for his freedom.”

Federal prosecutors alleged that Assange conspired with Chelsea Manning, then a U.S. Army intelligence analyst, to steal diplomatic cables and military files, which WikiLeaks published in 2010. Prosecutors accused Assange of harming national security by releasing documents that damaged the U.S. and its allies, while aiding its adversaries.

Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. President commuted the sentence in 2017 in the final days of his presidency.

Assange has been hailed by free press advocates as a champion of transparency but heavily criticized by national security hawks who argue that he jeopardized lives and went far beyond the bounds of journalism.  

Weeks after the 2010 document release, Swedish prosecutors issued for allegedly raping a woman and an allegation of molestation. The case was later dropped. Assange has consistently maintained his innocence. 

In 2012, Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy , where he claimed asylum based on political persecution, and spent the subsequent seven years in self-imposed exile there. 

The Ecuadorian government in 2019 allowed British police to arrest Assange, and he remained in custody for the next five years while battling extradition to the U.S.