Via a Fundamentally Devious US Plea Deal, Julian Assange Will Soon Be a Free Man

25.6.24

Julian Assange flying out of the UK after his release from HMP Belmarsh on June 25, 2024, in a photo made available by his wife Stella.

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In unexpected and truly heartening news, WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange will soon now a free man, reunited, in his home country of Australia, with his wife Stella and their two sons, Gabriel and Max (born in 2017 and 2019), who have only ever seen their father behind bars.

Assange was released from the maximum-security HMP Belmarsh in south east London, where he had spent over five years —1,901 days — in legal limbo, fighting extradition to the US to face espionage charges relating to his work as a journalist and publisher exposing US crimes and war crimes.

From Stansted Airport, he is being flown to the Northern Mariana Islands, a commonwealth of the United States, where, in exchange for his freedom, he has agreed to sign a plea deal admitting that he had “knowingly and unlawfully conspired with Chelsea Manning” to commit espionage against the United States by obtaining and disseminating classified national defence information.

According to the Guardian, “Prosecutors have agreed to a sentence of five years, but have said the time already served in a British prison will count towards this”, which “means that he will probably walk free after the sentencing”, although “the guilty plea must still be approved by a judge.”

While no one could begrudge Assange, who turns 53 next week and has been in ill-health, from clutching at the only hope offered to him, and accepting the plea deal, it is, unfortunately, a devious victory for the US government, humiliating Assange by getting him to admit to conspiring with Chelsea Manning to commit espionage in the procurement of classified US government files that were subsequently published by WikiLeaks alongside some of the world’s most prominent newspapers.

The reason this is so devious is that it erases the burden on the US government to prove in court that Assange conspired with Manning to secure the leaked documents. This was always an extremely dubious claim, because, to be frank, no evidence exists to demonstrate that he did anything more than work with a source, as all investigative journalists in the mainstream media do, to secure the release of suppressed or hidden government documents that it is in the public interest to know about.

By limiting Assange’s plea to an espionage-related charge, the Biden administration’s Justice Department has also managed to shield the mainstream media from culpability for having worked with WikiLeaks on the release of the documents, which had raised alarming questions about the First Amendment and freedom of the press to such an extent that President Biden had refused to seek Assange’s extradition, recognizing that it was impossible to prevent any prosecution from spilling over into an unacceptable assault on the establishment media.

When Trump decided to pursue Assange, he attempted to sidestep this problem by portraying Assange’s actions as espionage, seeking to deprive him, as a foreigner, of First Amendment rights by essentially portraying him as a terrorist, and adding a collusional hacking claim to the charge sheet in an added effort to portray him as more than an essentially passive recipient of information provided by a whistleblower. When Biden decided not to drop the charges against Assange, US lawyers worked with their British counterparts to try to justify this deprivation of his First Amendment rights, but this had failed to persuade the judges in his most recent efforts to resist his extradition through the courts, who had allowed him an appeal that was scheduled to take place in two weeks’ time, on July 8 and 9.

It was this appeal — and the prospect of the US losing — that seems to have finally triggered the plea deal, building, no doubt, on what his family members have described as “quiet diplomacy” on the part of the Australian government, which formally requested his return in February, via a motion in the House of Representatives that was supported by 86 lawmakers (out of 151) including the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and which called on the US and Britain to bring the “matter to a close so that Mr. Assange can return home to his family in Australia.”

It remains to be seen, however, if, despite Biden’s best efforts to protect the US’s precious First Amendment rights, the plea deal will still have a chilling effect on journalists working with whistleblowers, because, in future, they may fear working with sources exposing classified government information through a valid suspicion that they too may be held to have crossed some invisible line into espionage.

The last steps in Julian Assange’s long journey to freedom

For now, however, Assange’s many supporters around the world are anxiously awaiting the last steps in his long journey to freedom, in which they have played a major part, along with the various lawyers, journalists and free speech advocates, myself included, who have spent years working to stop the extradition, to protect press freedom, and to get him freed.

In my case, I first met Assange in March 2011, when he was living under a curfew and house arrest in Norfolk, fearing assassination by the CIA, and when I worked with him and WikiLeaks as a media partner on the release of ‘The Guantánamo Files’, the hugely significant classified military files from Guantánamo, which were the last of the treasure trove of documents leaked by Chelsea Manning.

As I think back on that time, working with major newspapers around the world on the release of the files, it is sobering to reflect that, just over a year later, Assange’s freedom came to an end when, fearing extradition to the US, he sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in Knightsbridge, where he remained for nearly seven years until his asylum was revoked, and the Metropolitan Police swooped in and hauled him off to Belmarsh, where, for 1,901 days, he was imprisoned for 23 hours a day in a ten-foot by six-foot cell, a brave dissident, seeking to make the world a better place by exposing the US government’s crimes, who, despite never having been convicted of a crime, was surrounded by men convicted of some of the most serious crimes in modern British history.

For all that time, as I have lived in freedom, able to be with my wife and my son — then 12, now 24 — it is disturbing to think that Julian Assange, although he had two children and got married, has been isolated from the world, and, especially over the last five years in Belmarsh, singled out for punishment by two major powers, the US and the UK, who would no doubt not have minded had he died while fighting his extradition, and who, all along, have used his imprisonment as a threat to discourage investigative journalists from doing too much investigating.

I wish him the peace and space he will require to rebuild his life with Stella, Gabriel and Max, and I thank him for the work that he undertook, with the enthusiastic participation of so many of the world’s most prominent newspapers, for which, until today’s astonishing news broke, he, and he alone, had been singled out for extraordinary punishment.

POSTSCRIPT: In what appears to be another devious attack on Julian Assange, his wife Stella has revealed in a post on X that he will have to pay back the $520,000 that it will have cost to fly him on a private jet from the UK to the Northern Mariana Islands and on to Australia, because the US government refused to allow him to travel on a commercial flight, but has refused to pay for the private jet hire. Donations to cover the cost can be made here.

And finally, if you haven’t yet heard it, do have a listen to my song ‘Warriors’, recorded with my band The Four Fathers, which tells the story of Julian and Chelsea Manning, although I’ll need to update the last two lines, regarding Julian’s extradition, now that he has been freed.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (see the ongoing photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and, in 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to try to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody.

Since 2019, Andy has become increasingly involved in environmental activism, recognizing that climate change poses an unprecedented threat to life on earth, and that the window for change — requiring a severe reduction in the emission of all greenhouse gases, and the dismantling of our suicidal global capitalist system — is rapidly shrinking, as tipping points are reached that are occurring much quicker than even pessimistic climate scientists expected. You can read his articles about the climate crisis here.

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35 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, my response to the extraordinary and unexpected news that WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has been freed from HMP Belmarsh, where he has been imprisoned for the last five years, fighting his proposed extradition to the US on entirely inappropriate espionage charges relating to the publication, with some of the world’s most prominent newspapers, of classified US files leaked by Chelsea Manning. He is now en route to the Northern Mariana Islands, where he will sign a plea deal with the US authorities prior to his release in Australia as a free man.

    While no one with any compassion could begrudge Assange his freedom, it is, nevertheless, a devious victory on the part of the US government, which has obliged him, via the plea deal, to falsely admit that he “knowingly and unlawfully conspired with Chelsea Manning” to commit espionage against the United States by obtaining and disseminating classified national defence information.

    Although the deal appears to protect the precious US First Amendment, regarding the freedom of the press, shielding Assange’s mainstream media partners from being held criminally accountable for co-publishing the leaked files with WikiLeaks, which may have been the outcome had a trial gone ahead, it remains to be seen whether Assange’s plea will nevertheless have a chilling effect on journalists working with whistleblowers, who, in future, may fear working with sources exposing classified government information through a valid suspicion that they too may be held to have crossed some invisible line into espionage.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Russell B Fuller wrote:

    My son, Executive Director of AssangeDefense, has worked tirelessly for ten years toward this outcome. People around the world have worked tirelessly for this day. This is special.
    https://assangedefense.org/

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Congratulations to your son, Russell, and to everyone who has worked so tirelessly to secure Julian’s freedom, as I acknowledge in the article. It is definitely a special day, and it has required the US establishment to climb down from its aggressive, vindictive efforts to take down Julian in a US court, ignoring the sane voices warning of the case’s threat to the First Amendment. Despite this, however, I think the terms of the plea deal remain a cause of concern.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Kären Ahern wrote:

    To gain his freedom, I do not begrudge him pleading guilty to “espionage”, either, but it is a concern going forward with so little truth in the press and needing our heroic whistleblowers to be safe. I will breathe a sigh of relief when he actually makes it back to Australia.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I’ll be relieved when he’s safely back in Australia, Kären, and, like you, I completely understand why he took the best option – perhaps the only option – available, although there’s an undercurrent to that plea deal that is genuinely troubling.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Roger Crowther wrote:

    I do not begrudge it at all and it is important to note that his wife Stella has admitted that his freedom came at a heavy cost to freedom of the press. It has already had a chilling affect under Obama / Att General Holder who did not prosecute. Biden’s Attorney General carried on Trump’s case against Assange.He could have backed off. Shame on the Biden administration.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I agree, Roger. It is yet another black mark against the Biden administration – to add to its unstinting support for Israel’s genocide in Gaza. They should have dropped the extradition request on Day One.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Nick Jewitt wrote:

    It is surely very good news despite the cost. I’m sure we wish Julian a speedy and successful recovery.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it is wonderful to reflect on Julian being free, Nick, and for this whole horrific story to be nearing its end, but although the US has in some ways been humiliated by recognizing that a trial was unviable, I do worry about the sting in the tail for journalism regarding the plea deal.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Peter B. Collins wrote:

    I’m reading that the US required Assange to fly to freedom by private jet, and will charge him more than US$500,000 for it. A final outrage.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, a last humiliation by the US, Peter. I mentioned it in a postscript, but should mention here the crowdfunder if anyone wants to help out: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/free-julian-assange

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    David Barrows wrote:

    I hope this appearance in court in the Mariana Islands isn’t some sort of trap, with the questions of whether five years is enough and “if the judge approves.” This kind of ruthless bargaining of 120 years in prison versus at least five if you sign the guilty plea is the kind of technique that the Federal Eastern District Court House in Alexandria uses on whistleblowers: plead guilty on a lesser charge that ensures far less jail time or probably receive thirty years or more with little chance of winning with a CIA-loving jury and judge.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    I appreciate your concerns, David, and I think lots of people won’t rest easy until Julian is safely in Australia. We can only hope that the deal is too organized for there to be any last-minute efforts to do something horribly underhand.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Ed Calipel wrote:

    Somewhat diluted joy as it’s not as cut and dried as it should be – but preferable to the alternative outcome in today’s skewed environment.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I think in today’s deranged world it stands as an extraordinary ray of light, Ed!

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Breaking news via the AP: Julian arrived safely in Saipan, and “has pleaded guilty to a single felony charge for publishing U.S. military secrets in a deal with Justice Department prosecutors that secures his freedom and concludes a drawn-out legal saga that raised divisive questions about press freedom and national security”: https://apnews.com/article/assange-justice-department-plea-wikileaks-saipan-australia-00eb380879ff636cc9b916f82f82ed40

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    From the Guardian report on the hearing in Saipan:

    The chief judge Ramona V Manglona opened the proceedings. She noted that the court room was unusually packed and asked Assange to confirm what he had done and why he was pleading guilty.

    Assange replied that working as a journalist he had encouraged a source to provide classified information and believed the first amendment protected that activity. He was now accepting that it was in fact a violation of the US espionage act.

    “Asked again if he was pleading guilty because he is “in fact guilty of that charge”, Assange took a long pause.

    “I am,” he said.

    As the unprecedented hearing continued, the judge noted that the timing of it was key to its outcome.

    “If this case was brought before me some time near 2012, without the benefit of what I know now, that you served a period of imprisonment … in apparently one of the harshest facilities in the United Kingdom … I would not be so inclined to accept this plea agreement before me”, she said.

    “But it’s the year 2024.”

    Manglona declared she would accept the terms of the plea deal hashed out between Assange and the US government. Assange was invited to stand before her and receive his sentence, with his time already served in a British jail meaning that he would be immediately freed, with no period of supervision.

    “With this pronouncement it appears you will be able to walk out of this courtroom a free man. I hope there will be some peace restored”, Manglona said.

    That this outcome was all but certain the second Assange walked into the courtroom, did little to diminish the impact of the moment. The WikiLeaks founder appeared emotional as he nodded at the judge, acknowledging the verdict.

    “It appears this case ends with me here in Saipan”, Manglona went on, asking him whether he understood all the details of the agreement.

    Assange replied, now a little hoarse: “I do.”

    He tightened his tie and held his glasses in his hand as the judge went through the final formalities.

    “With that … Mr Assange it’s apparently an early happy birthday to you”, she said.

    “I understand your birthday is next week. I hope you will start your new life in a positive manner.”

    The court was adjourned.

    As Assange hugged his lawyers, shook the hands of those who had pursued him and signed autographs for supporters, he began to tear up.

    In front of the sparkling Pacific, next to a beach where stray kittens ran among the trees, a 14 year legal saga came to a surprising and sudden end, half a world away from where it first began.

    https://www.theguardian.com/media/article/2024/jun/26/julian-assange-prison-release-inside-saipan-court

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Julian Assange reunited in Australia with his wife Stella, as his lawyers, Jen Robinson and Barry Pollack, watch. The end of an ordeal that included five years in Belmarsh, and nearly seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy, for a man who sought only to make the world a better place by publishing – with some of the world’s major newspapers, and with me for the publication of ‘The Guantanamo Files’ – evidence of US crimes and war crimes.
    https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=10162020843128804&set=a.10150687732288804

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    This is great news, Andy! I’m starting to believe in humanity! But we have to admit that we are at a stage in the development of civilization when the truth is a crime. People no longer burn at the stake for telling the truth, but I also can’t call it civilization.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Aleksey. Yes, it’s a breath of fresh air in an otherwise largely polluted atmosphere of human corruption and violence, isn’t it? You’re absolutely right to refuse to call this a civilization. Whatever elements of civilization there may been in the past are corroding horribly, and horribly fast, and we’re all still being bombarded with misinformation and distraction to try and stop us from waking up.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Andy Bungay wrote:

    What extraordinary resilience the man has. In a previous life I did some work with some dischargees from Belmarsh, and ‘rough diamond’ doesn’t really cover the degree of damage they exhibited even when the place was better staffed.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I think his resilience is definitely worth noting, Andy. Interesting to hear your recollections of working with people crushed by Belmarsh’s inhumane system. People in this country should be shamed of how our prisons operate, but politicians and the media rarely, if ever, stray from a punitive law and order message.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Giddings wrote:

    I did think of you as soon as I saw this Andy. He’s nearly home now.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, he’s back, and reunited with his family now, Anna. When he was first seized from the Ecuadorian Embassy and taken to Belmarsh, I had a memorable conversation with a fellow activist, in which, based on the experiences of Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan, we estimated that he would be held for five or six years before he was freed – if he survived that long. That was an analysis that factored in the European Court of Human Rights as the last port of call, so it’s been a pleasant surprise for the US government to have freed him instead – notwithstanding the dubious nature of the plea deal.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Janet Hussain wrote:

    Can you believe he has to pay the costs of the whole plane !
    Unbelievable but true !

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Fortunately he has a lot of supporters who are helping out, Janet, and who have so far raised £375,000, but what an insight it is into the vengeful nature of the US government. https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/free-julian-assange

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    Deborah Emin wrote:

    Thanks to you for all your advocacy, Andy. I consider myself a prayer warrior. It is hard not to continuously pray for all those who are victims of the great powers’ need for dominance. From the animals we refuse to accept as part of the necessity of life’s fabric to the children lying under the rubble of a continuously destroyed Gaza, there is much to pray for. Right now, just taking a breath. A deep one. Good to see goodness.

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    “Good to see goodness” indeed, Deborah. We all need that reward of taking a breath with Julian and his family, although as today is UN Torture Day, I’m not getting much of a break! Thanks as always for your support.

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    Sigrid Lee wrote:

    Andy, I can’t recall the last time I sobbed this hard for joy and relief at seeing this wonderful reunion! Thank you so very very much. Just incredible; I never thought this day would come. I have to laugh. A “friend” messaged telling me to “quietly delete myself from her page for supporting………” I won’t even repeat what she called this wonderful dedicated man of such integrity. She got a “quiet” block 🤣 💖 ✊ 💏 ✨ 🌈

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Sigrid, and interesting to hear about your ex-friend. Because social media tends to create echo chambers for all of us, it’s easy to forget sometimes that some people were profoundly unsupportive of Julian’s plight.

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary MacGregor Green wrote:

    I am so relieved and happy to see Assange set free (the case ought never to have happened) (Hillary, I assume you had some hand in this case being brought and that’s no bueno).

  33. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Mary, and yes, you’re absolutely right to say that the case should never have been brought. I was profoundly disappointed that Biden didn’t drop it, but felt from the beginning of his presidency that both his administration and the UK government were more than happy to prolong Julian’s agony in Belmarsh for as long as possible to punish him in what was essentially an extrajudicial manner – because it takes so many years to challenge an extradition request.

    I’m also sure, however, that the Biden administration knew all along that it was extremely perilous – if not completely impractical – to proceed with a trial that would, inevitably, also see the fundamental basis of press freedom on trial.

  34. Julian Assange is FREE!!! – Dandelion Salad says...

    […] Via a Fundamentally Devious US Plea Deal, Julian Assange Will Soon Be a Free Man, by Andy Worthingto… […]

  35. Andy Worthington says...

    See here for a few photos of mine, and a brief report about a celebration of Julian’s freedom in London: https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=10162039282998804&set=pcb.10162039308538804

    As I described it, “A few photos from a happy and moving celebration today of Julian Assange’s freedom, and his 53rd birthday, outside Australia House in London, where campaigners held weekly vigils calling for his release for the five years that he was held in HMP Belmarsh, fighting his extradition to the US, as well as regular vigils at Piccadilly Circus and outside Belmarsh.

    “I came along to the celebration after the monthly vigil for the closure of Guantanamo outside the Houses of Parliament, along with three other campaigning friends — Paul, Sue Edwards and Anna Fauzy-Ackroyd, visiting from the Isle of Wight — and it was a pleasure to be with other campaigners who I’ve also known for many years, many of whom have also campaigned for Guantanamo’s closure, as well as for Julian’s freedom — Emmy, in the first photo, leading a rendition of ‘Happy birthday’ for Julian, Ciaron O’Reillly, Elsa Collins, Val, Deepa Govindarajan Driver and many others.

    “In a year in which it often seems that a memo went out on New Year’s Day confirming that this would be a year of relentless bad news, Julian’s release last week was an extraordinary ray of light, made real, in no small part, because of the indefatigable campaigning of supporters around the world, including in London.

    “Thanks, everyone, and happy birthday, Julian!”

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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