Julian Assange Saga Ends; Guilty Plea Traded For Freedom

AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File

Julian Assange's 14-year saga as a fugitive and prisoner may be coming to an end. The Wikileaks founder has agreed to plead guilty to a felony charge with the U.S. Justice Department in exchange for no additional prison time. He has already served 5 years in a maximum security prison in England after spending 7 years hiding in an Ecuadorian Embassy. 

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Assange would only agree to a hearing outside of U.S. soil. Last month he won his right to appeal an extradition order. 

High Court judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson ruled for Assange 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.

In his appeal, he also claimed fear of the death penalty. 

He is scheduled to appear at 9 am on Wednesday in Saipan, of the Mariana Islands- a commonwealth of the U.S. 

Assange rose to fame in 2010 when Chelsea Manning, a U.S. Army intelligence analyst, helped Wikileaks release classified military files related to Iraq and Afghanistan. He was charged with 18 counts related to the site and faced up to 170 years in prison. 

Assange’s lawyers have argued he was a journalist who exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sending him to the U.S., they said, would expose him to a politically motivated prosecution and risk a “flagrant denial of justice.”

He will plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge of conspiring to obtain and disseminate classified national defense information unlawfully.

Assange's story has sparked controversy since the beginning due to the nature of his revelations. His supporters revere him as a freedom-of-speech hero, others view him as a traitor. 

The U.S. government says Assange’s actions went way beyond those of a journalist gathering information, amounting to an attempt to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified government documents.

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Chelsea Manning's sentencing was commuted by President Obama in 2017. He claimed that justice had been adequately served:

I feel very comfortable that justice has been served. Let’s be clear: Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence. The notion that the average person who is thinking about disclosing vital classified information would think that it goes unpunished … I don’t think would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served.

If justice is due for Assange as well, then it has been paid at least in part by the more than a decade he has spent either imprisoned or in hiding. That will not be sufficient for some, and it shouldn't be, but at least it's something. For his supporters, many of the Libertarian party, he will be championed as a hero after his legal dealings end. 

Time will tell what Assange will do with his freedom and celebrity status now. He is expected to return to Australia after his plea and sentencing. 

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