Julian Assange returns to Australia after 12 years of legal battle: plea agreement ends imbroglio

Julian Assange, the polarizing founder of WikiLeaks, has finally landed on Australian soil, marking his first day of freedom after 12 years of legal battles and imprisonment. Assange’s return comes on the heels of a dramatic plea deal signed off by a US judge on Wednesday, ending a contentious saga that has gripped global attention and sparked heated debates over freedom of the press and national security.

A Hero’s Welcome

The scene at Canberra Airport was electrifying as Assange stepped off the aircraft, greeted by the cheers of supporters who had gathered to witness his historic return. He waved to the crowd, his face showing a mix of relief and elation. As he walked across the tarmac towards the terminal, his wife Stella, waiting with a broad smile, rushed forward. Assange embraced her warmly, lifting her off the ground in a gesture that spoke volumes about their shared relief and joy.

At a press conference following his arrival, Stella Assange, visibly moved, thanked the supporters and asked for privacy. “Julian wanted me to thank everyone sincerely. He wanted to be here. But you have to understand what he’s been through. He needs time; he needs to recuperate, and this is a process,” she said, pausing occasionally to gather her emotions. “I ask you, please, to give us space, to give us privacy, to find our place, to let our family be a family before he can speak again at a time of his choosing.”

The Plea Deal and Courtroom Drama

Earlier on Wednesday, Assange had walked out of a US courtroom in Saipan, the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands, a remote US territory in the Pacific. He briefly addressed the global press contingent outside the court, raising a hand in a sign of quiet victory before making his way to the airport for his journey home.

Assange’s US lawyer, Barry Pollack, highlighted the unprecedented nature of his client’s prosecution under the Espionage Act. “The prosecution of Julian Assange is unprecedented in the 100 years of the Espionage Act,” Pollack remarked. “Mr. Assange revealed truthful, newsworthy information. We firmly believe that Mr. Assange never should have been charged under the Espionage Act and engaged in an exercise that journalists engage in every day.”

In a surprising twist, Assange had been released from a high-security prison in London on Monday and boarded a private jet to leave the UK before news of his plea deal with the US government had even surfaced. He appeared in the Saipan courtroom to formalize the agreement, pleading guilty to conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified information related to one of the largest breaches in US military history.

“I am, in fact, guilty of the charge,” Assange stated, acknowledging his actions in the courtroom.

Assange’s deep mistrust of the US had led him to seek assurance that he would not be extradited to the continental US. Consequently, prosecutors arranged for the proceedings to take place in Saipan, a territory significantly closer to Australia, where Assange would ultimately travel following his release.

Justice Department prosecutors also noted the logistical advantages of holding the court session on the islands, which are approximately 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles) west of Hawaii and closer to Assange’s destination.

Kevin Rudd, Australia’s Ambassador to Washington and a former prime minister who played a crucial role in facilitating negotiations with the US, was present in the courtroom to witness the proceedings.

During the hearing, Judge Ramona Manglona reminded Assange of the unique setting, noting that this court was the “smallest, youngest, and furthest from the nation’s capital.” Assange appeared composed, dressed in a black jacket and brown tie, sitting alongside his attorneys.

When asked by Judge Manglona to describe his actions leading to the charges, Assange responded, “Working as a journalist, I encouraged my source to provide information that was said to be classified in order to publish that information. I believe that the First Amendment protected that activity. I believe the First Amendment 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.”

In her sentencing, Judge Manglona credited Assange for the time he had already served in British custody. “It appears that your 62 months imprisonment is fair and reasonable,” she said. “You will be able to walk out of this courtroom a free man. I hope there will be some peace restored.”

The judge added that the timing of Assange’s plea was significant, stating that she would have been less inclined to accept it a decade ago. She also pointed out that there was no personal victim in this case, as Assange’s actions did not result in any known physical harm.

The Controversial Figure

For years, the US government argued that Assange’s actions through WikiLeaks had endangered lives and posed a significant threat to national security. WikiLeaks came to global prominence in 2010 following a series of high-profile leaks from former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. These leaks included a 2007 video showing a US military helicopter firing on and killing two journalists and several Iraqi civilians and over 90,000 classified Afghan war documents dating back to 2004.

Later that year, Assange faced allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, which led to an international warrant for his arrest. In 2012, he sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he remained for almost seven years until British authorities arrested him in 2019 on an extradition request from the US Justice Department.

A Diplomatic Triumph and a New Chapter

The plea deal with the US government marks the end of a 14-year legal odyssey that has spanned multiple countries and involved numerous court battles. The reasons for the timing of this resolution remain unclear, but it is believed that Australian officials have been pursuing diplomatic avenues for some time.

Speaking in the Australian parliament, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese expressed his satisfaction with Assange’s return. “I am pleased that Julian Assange is on his way home to Australia to reunite with his family,” Albanese said. “This outcome has been the product of careful, patient, and determined work. This is what standing up for Australians around the world looks like.”

US President Joe Biden had hinted at a possible deal facilitated by Australian government officials in recent months. However, the Biden administration distanced itself from the resolution, with National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson telling CNN that it was “an independent decision made by the Department of Justice and there was no White House involvement.”

With Assange now back in Australia, his immediate priority will be recovering from his long ordeal. The international campaign advocating for his release has launched an appeal for donations to cover the costs of his charter flight, reportedly amounting to $520,000, and to support his recovery.

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Dr. Florence Akano

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