Assange Pleads Guilty in US Court, Ending 14-Year Legal Saga

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has arrived at a US courthouse in the Northern Mariana Islands to plead guilty to a single espionage charge, ending a 14-year legal saga.

Assange arrived at the United States District Court for The Northern Mariana Islands in Saipan more than 24 hours after he left the UK on a charter flight, following his release from London’s Belmarsh Prison.

Assange, dressed in a black suit, did not speak to the press as he passed through a metal detector and into the glass-fronted court building. He was accompanied by Australia’s former prime minister and current ambassador to the US, Kevin Rudd.

Assange was allowed to leave Belmarsh on Monday after his lawyers reached a plea deal with the US Justice Department. According to court documents, the former WikiLeaks boss will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to obtain and disseminate national defense information, for which he will receive a 62-month prison sentence. The five years Assange has already spent in detention in the UK will be counted toward this sentence, meaning he will be free to travel onward to his native Australia.

After his arrest by British police in 2010 for sexual assault charges that were later dropped, Assange jumped bail in 2012 and was granted asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He was arrested again in 2019 when Ecuador revoked his asylum. He spent the next 1,901 days in the Belmarsh high-security complex, much of it in solitary confinement.

The US Justice Department unsealed an indictment against Assange on the day of his arrest, charging him with 17 counts of espionage. Assange spent the next five years fighting extradition, where he would have faced up to 175 years behind bars if convicted. 

The charges against Assange stemmed from publication by Wikileaks of classified material obtained by whistleblowers, including Pentagon documents detailing alleged US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Wednesday’s hearing marks the final chapter of a 14-year legal battle for Assange. However, press freedom activists have warned that the US insistence on an espionage conviction could deter journalists from publishing classified documents in the future.

“The plea deal won’t have the precedential effect of a court ruling, but it will still hang over the heads of national security reporters for years to come,” Seth Stern, the director of advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF), said in a statement on Tuesday.