Court approves deal with Assange – Wikileaks founder released


Lerato Khumalo

The years-long saga surrounding Wikileaks founder Julian Assange ends with a legal deal and a grand finale on a remote island in the Pacific. The 52-year-old now wants to return to his homeland.

A US court has approved the deal between Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and the American judiciary in connection with espionage allegations and sealed his release. The BBC and the British “Guardian” reported this from the courtroom on the Mariana island of Saipan, a US territory in the Pacific.

According to the agreement, the 52-year-old will be released in return for a guilty plea after serving his sentence in Great Britain. According to the reporters present, the judge in charge, Ramona Manglona, ​​said that Assange could “leave the courtroom a free man”.

According to observers, Assange was close to tears after the verdict was announced. “It looks like this case will end with me here in Saipan,” British media quoted the judge as saying. It was apparently an early birthday present for Assange: “I heard it’s your birthday next week. I hope you start your new life in a positive way.” The Australian will turn 53 next Wednesday (July 3).

Assange is now on his way to Australia. This marks his first return to his homeland after 14 years of legal wrangling. The chartered Bombardier plane took off from Saipan at noon (local time) and is expected to arrive in the capital Canberra in the evening, according to “flightradar24”. On the platform, the flight number VJT199, which Assange’s wife Stella and Wikileaks had previously mentioned on social media, was the connection most closely watched by users worldwide.

Assange is the protagonist of a major espionage scandal. In 2006, the Australian founded the platform Wikileaks with the mission of supporting whistleblowers and bringing hidden information to light. From 2010 onwards, Wikileaks published secret material from US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan by whistleblower Chelsea Manning. The USA subsequently accused Assange of stealing and publishing secret material, thereby endangering the lives of US informants.

For a long time, the American justice system wanted to put Assange on trial for espionage charges. He would have faced up to 175 years in prison in the USA. Instead, he recently negotiated a deal with the US justice system and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to illegally obtain and distribute secret documents. According to the BBC and the Guardian, Judge Manglona determined that the sentence would be the same as the time the internet activist has already served in a high-security prison in London.

The justice deal spares Assange a trial and potentially further imprisonment in the USA. The United States had previously demanded his extradition from Great Britain. Instead, the 52-year-old can now return to his homeland. From Saipan he wanted to travel directly to Australia, as Wikileaks announced on the X platform. The court hearing was therefore not held on the American mainland, but in the remote US territory. The Northern Mariana Islands are just a few hours’ flight north of Australia.

Assange was released from prison in London without being noticed by the public and left the UK on a chartered plane to attend the court hearing on the Pacific island. After a stopover in the Thai capital Bangkok, he flew on to Saipan for the hearing.

It is the adventurous end of a years-long odyssey with many legal battles. Assange began his sentence in the high-security Belmarsh prison in London about five years ago. Before his arrest in April 2019, he evaded the reach of law enforcement authorities for seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

They had initially targeted him because of rape allegations in Sweden. However, these charges were later dropped due to a lack of evidence.

While the USA demanded Assange’s extradition for years, human rights organisations, journalists’ associations, artists and politicians called for his immediate release. The Australian government also campaigned for the release of its citizen.