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Julian Assange Strikes Plea Deal for Freedom

Liberty awaits the WikiLeaks’ founder, but at what cost?

by | Jun 25, 2024 | Articles, First Amendment

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may be on the cusp of a conclusion to his legal troubles that have haunted him for almost 15 years. According to the details of a tentative plea deal revealed Tuesday, June 25, Assange will appear in court tomorrow, Wednesday, June 26, in the United States territory of the Northern Mariana Islands. He will plead guilty to one federal felony charge and then be permitted to return to his home country of Australia.

The agreement suggests he will be sentenced to 62 months – which he has already served in Britain’s Belmarsh prison. Should all go according to the plea deal in Wednesday’s court appearance, Assange will essentially be a free man due to time served.

The Long Road for Assange

Assange achieved notoriety when his anti-secrecy website published documents that have been described as “classified military” and “diplomatic” between 2000 and 2011. These disclosures included footage of US airstrikes in Baghdad and a range of military logs from the Afghanistan and Iraq military operations. They also included sensitive diplomatic cables.

In late 2010, an arrest warrant for sexual assault was issued for Assange in Sweden – those charges that were later dropped. However, he fled the northern European nation and claimed asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. During the 2016 US presidential election, Assange released the damning Democratic National Committee emails that exposed how the party was favoring Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, which ultimately led to embarrassment for the committee, the resignation of chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and an apology to Sanders.

His legal travails were rekindled when he emerged from the Embassy and was taken into British custody, likely at the demand of US authorities, facing charges stemming from a sealed Trump administration indictment of computer hacking. This was later expanded to include 17 charges.

Attorneys for Assange argued during the lengthy fight against extradition that their client could not receive a fair trial in the United States and that both his mental and physical health were not fit to withstand the process. This battle has been ongoing in the UK courts for five years. The extradition process was further muddied by the possibility of the death penalty – specifically, that the UK government does not deport people to places where such a punishment is possible. The US government insisted that he would not face such an issue and that any sentence it imposed could be served in his home country.

Hero or Villain?

Julian Assange is one of the most notable and divisive figures of the 21st century. To some, he is a heroic journalist who exposed war crimes, government criminality, and the blasé attitude of national administrations to individual privacy. Conversely, he is seen by others as someone without journalistic integrity who endangered the lives of military service members and Afghan civilians who had provided intel to the US.

His case has been a lightning rod for First Amendment advocates who say that what he did was no different to newspapers when they break a big story. In fact, several organizations concerned with press freedom suggest Assange’s legal conclusion is not necessarily a win for journalists due to his having to plead guilty.

Seth Stern of the Freedom of the Press Foundation said that it was “alarming that the Biden administration felt the need to extract a guilty plea for the purported crime of obtaining and publishing government secrets. That’s what investigative journalists do every day… And they made that choice knowing that Donald Trump would love nothing more than to find a way to throw journalists in jail.”

Jameel Jaffer of the Knight First Amendment Institute insisted that the plea deal was not really a victory, in that it “contemplates that Assange will have served five years in prison for activities that journalists engage in every day,” and that the option “cast a long shadow over the most important kinds of journalism, not just in this country but around the world.”

While Mr. Assange’s personal troubles may soon be over, it seems that the manner in which they were resolved could open a whole new can of worms on the First Amendment front.

Read More From Mark Angelides

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