A desire on all sides to move forward gives Julian Assange freedom

As negotiations to end the long-running legal tussle between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the United States reached a critical point this spring, prosecutors presented his lawyers with a choice so crazy that one person involved thought it it sounded like a Monty Python joke. movie.

“Guam or Saipan?”

It was no joke. He had been told that his path to freedom would pass through one of the two American islands in the blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Mr. Assange, who feared lifelong imprisonment in the United States, had long insisted on a condition of any plea deal: never to set foot in the country. The U.S. government, in turn, had required Mr. Assange to plead guilty to a felony for violating the Espionage Act, which required him to appear before a federal judge.

In April, a lawyer for the Justice Department’s national security division broke the deadlock with a clever workaround: What about a U.S. court that wasn’t actually located inside continental America?

Mr Assange, worn down by five years of imprisonment in a London prison, where he spent 23 hours a day in a cell, quickly recognized that the deal was the best he had ever been offered. The two parties settled in Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, 6,000 miles from the west coast of the United States and about 2,200 miles from his native Australia.

This long, strange journey ended an even longer, stranger legal journey that began after Mr. Assange, an ambitious hacker-activist who ran afoul of U.S. national security and political institutions, was alternately celebrated and reviled for exposing state secrets in the 2010s.

Among them were materials on U.S. military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as classified cables shared between diplomats. During the 2016 presidential campaign, WikiLeaks published thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, leading to revelations that embarrassed the party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Yet, according to eight people familiar with the talks, the negotiations that led to Mr. Assange's release were surprisingly amicable and efficient, because both sides acted out of a mutual desire to end a stalemate that had left Mr. Assange in limbo and the department mired in a prolonged extradition fight.

The timetable was a major catalyst. By late 2023, senior Justice Department officials had concluded that Mr. Assange, now 52, ​​had already served a significantly longer sentence than many people convicted of similar crimes (he had been in prison for 62 months at the time of his release).

Although he had been charged with 18 counts under the Espionage Act and faced hundreds of years in prison, Mr Assange, if extradited, tried and convicted, would most likely have been sentenced to around four years if his convictions had been run concurrently, his legal team calculated in a court document.

Department officials were eager to get rid of the problematic and time-consuming case, which had made some of Assange's prosecutors targets of WikiLeaks supporters. A senior official said another factor in the negotiations was “Assange fatigue”.

Moreover, some officials appointed under President Biden were never entirely comfortable with the Trump administration’s decision to charge Assange with activities that skirted the line between espionage and legitimate disclosures made in the public interest, current and former officials said.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland told reporters Thursday that the settlement was in the “best interests” of the country.

In early 2024, Australian leaders, including Kevin Rudd, the ambassador to the United States, and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, began pressuring their American counterparts to reach a deal – not so much out of solidarity with Assange, or for support of its president. actions, but because he had spent so much time in captivity.

“The Australian Government has consistently said that Mr Assange's case has dragged on too long and that there is nothing to be gained from his continued imprisonment,” Mr Albanese wrote in X on the day of his release. “We want him brought home to Australia.”

On April 11, the fifth anniversary of Assange's incarceration, President Biden told reporters at the White House that the United States was “considering” Australia's request to return him to his home. However, US officials said the White House had no role in solving the case.

Mr Assange was desperate and wanted to go home. He had had health problems, his wife Stella told reporters, and Mr Assange had spoken candidly over the years about his bouts of severe depression. Even if he had been in perfect health, the cost of spending almost 14 years confined in London had been an enormous strain. He lived first as an exile inside the Ecuadorian embassy, ​​attempting to evade investigations by Swedish authorities for sexual assault, and the last five of those years in Belmarsh prison.

One of Mr Assange's lawyers, Jennifer Robinson, told an Australian television interviewer that she believed the Australian pressure campaign, combined with a recent positive ruling in his extradition case, had created a shift in talks with the Justice Department that had begun six month ago.

Late last year, Assange's Washington-based legal team, led by trial lawyer Barry Pollack, submitted proposals that Assange would plead guilty to misdemeanor charges, from a site beyond outside the United States, and would have been sentenced to time served.

Pollack also suggested that the government charge WikiLeaks, not its founder, with a crime for obtaining and releasing sensitive intelligence documents that Assange obtained from Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst 15 years ago.

The offer appealed to some prosecutors within the department, who were eager for an off-ramp. But after a brief period of internal wrangling, senior officials rejected that approach, drafting a somewhat tougher counteroffer: Mr. Assange would plead guilty to a single felony count of conspiracy to obtain and disseminate national defense information, a more serious offense that included his interactions with Ms. Manning.

Free speech groups say the deal represents a setback for press freedom, but Mr Assange appears to have no problem, conceptually, admitting to wrongdoing on such grounds.

Instead, her initial refusal to plead guilty to a crime was rooted in her reluctance to appear in an American court, for fear of being detained indefinitely or physically assaulted in the United States, Ms. Robinson said in the television interview.

He made “a rational choice,” he added.

In May, a London court ruled, on limited grounds, that Mr. Assange could appeal his extradition to the United States. That decision offered him the promise of final victory, but left him in indefinite captivity until then.

Nick Vamos, former head of extradition at the Crown Prosecution Service, which is responsible for bringing criminal cases in England and Wales, believes the ruling may have “triggered” a rush to the plea deal.

But negotiations for Assange's release now appear to be well underway. The Justice Department had rolled out its Saipan plan before the ruling, U.S. officials said.

By June, all that remained was to organize the complex legal and transportation logistics.

The Australian government has provided the $520,000 needed to charter a private jet to fly Mr Assange from London to Saipan and back home. His team is appealing to supporters on social media to fund the reimbursement.

Then there was the matter of coordinating his release with British authorities, who quietly convened a bail hearing just days before his flight to freedom was scheduled to depart on June 24.

Mr. Assange had a second ironclad demand, which came into play as the saga neared its finale: Whatever happened to Saipan, he intended to walk out of court a free man.

Justice Department officials saw little chance that the judge in the case, Ramona V. Manglona, ​​would scuttle the deal. So they had agreed, as part of previous negotiations, to allow him to leave for Australia even if she rejected the deal.

It was no problem. Judge Manglona accepted the deal without complaint and wished him “peace” and a happy birthday on July 3, when he will turn 53.

Mr Assange has launched a final, modest protest – within the constraints imposed on him by the terms of the agreement.

He told the court he believed he had been “working as a journalist” when interacting with Ms Manning, but was at pains to add that he now accepted his actions had been “a breach” of US law.

Matthew McKenzie, one of the lead prosecutors on the case, agreed to disagree.

“We reject these feelings, but we accept that he believes them,” she responded.

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