Julian Assange: A Free Man After Pleading Guilty to Espionage

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was set free after the judge accepted the plea.(Reuters: Kim Hong-Ji)

Julian Assange is now a free man, having pled guilty to one charge of espionage in a United States federal court as part of a plea deal with prosecutors. However, his final moments in court were marked by a notable act of defiance.

In a courtroom brimming with tension, Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona entered the US federal court in the remote Northern Mariana Islands, a US territory deep in the Pacific Ocean. The significance of the case and the obscure location prompted the judge to remind those present of the territory’s status as part of the United States.

“Not many people recognize we are part of the United States, but that is true,” Chief Judge Manglona stated.

Assange was facing one charge of conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information, a charge carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. When asked if he was willing to enter a plea, Assange calmly responded, “Guilty.”

Chief Judge Manglona noted that had Assange faced court in 2012, she might not have accepted the plea deal. However, given the passage of time, the lack of physical harm resulting from his actions, and the five years he had already served in one of the UK’s harshest prisons, she sentenced him to time already served, effectively making him a free man.

“I hope you start your new life in a positive manner,” Chief Judge Manglona said.

Julian Assange, dressed in a black suit and brown tie, walked among a crowd, free at last. Despite years of communicating through lawyers and advocates, he took a moment to speak directly about his case, underscoring his belief in the US Constitution’s First Amendment, which upholds free speech and freedom of the press. He contended that his actions, as a journalist, were protected by this amendment, even though they involved encouraging a source to provide classified information.

“Working as a journalist, I encouraged my source to provide information that was said to be classified in order to publish that information,” Assange told the court. “I believed the First Amendment protected that activity. I believe the First Amendment and the Espionage Act are in contradiction.”

Outside the court, Australian human rights lawyer and Assange’s longest-serving counsel, Jennifer Robinson, declared it a “historic day.”

“Julian Assange can go home a free man,” she said. “This also brings to an end a case which has been recognized as the greatest threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century. There has been a global movement behind Julian to protect free speech, and it is because of the global movement of support that today’s outcome is possible.”

Ms. Robinson emphasized the dangerous precedent this prosecution set for journalists worldwide, highlighting the US’s attempt to exercise extraterritorial jurisdiction without providing constitutional free speech protections.

The US Department of Justice issued a statement, underscoring that unlike news organizations that published redacted versions of classified documents, Assange and WikiLeaks had disclosed many raw, unredacted documents, placing individuals who had assisted the US government at significant risk. The department confirmed that as part of the plea agreement, Assange would not be allowed to enter the United States without permission.

Assange initially faced multiple charges that could have led to a sentence of up to 175 years in prison. However, under the plea deal, by admitting guilt to one charge, he is now free, much to the relief of his family and supporters.

Assange’s release marks the end of a bilateral headache for the US and Australia. Assange and WikiLeaks have long argued that the disclosure of highly sensitive material was public interest journalism protected under the US Constitution. His detractors, however, claimed that he recklessly dumped unfiltered material online, endangering US personnel.

Despite his final act of defiance, Assange is now a convicted felon, having publicly admitted that his work, at least in part, overstepped legal boundaries. The impact of this deal on journalism remains one of the many unknowns.

Assange arrived at the courthouse in a white SUV, wearing a black suit and a smile. He was flanked by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and supported by Australian High Commissioner to the UK Stephen Smith. Jennifer Robinson, his long-serving counsel, accompanied him, reflecting cautious optimism and relief.

Julian Assange and human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson smiled as they entered the court in Saipan. (Reuters: Kim Hong-Ji)

During the hearing, WikiLeaks announced that Assange’s flight out of the US territory would depart shortly after the court appearance, returning him to Canberra by the end of the day. Thus, the Northern Mariana Islands became a brief but crucial detour on his journey home.

At 7:35 pm Australian Eastern Standard Time, Julian Assange returned home to Canberra, closing a significant chapter in his and the world’s legal and political history.

Julian Assange and his wife. (9NEWS.com.au)