Julian Assange released from prison and returns to Australia

After extensive negotiations with the US government, Mr Assange reached a plea deal with US prosecutors. Mr Assange pleaded to one count of conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act with an agreed sentence of time served, which will allow him to return home to Australia. After entering his plea in the North Mariana Islands (NMI), Mr Assange immediately departed for Australia to be reunited with his family.

Edward Fitzgerald KC acted for Mr Assange in the UK extradition proceedings, together with Mark Summers KC and Florence Iveson of Matrix Chambers. They recently obtained permission to appeal the extradition order from the High Court on grounds of discrimination against foreign citizens in the US in relation to First Amendment protections. Jennifer Robinson worked on the plea deal negotiations, as well as on arrangements with the Australian government to enable Mr Assange’s return home. Ms Robinson has also acted for and advised Mr Assange on all aspects of his cases since 2010, including on Wikileaks publications, his extradition proceedings, his asylum claim with Ecuador and advice on international disputes over his asylum and diplomatic appointment, UN engagement with Special Procedures and all international cases. Alex Tinsley of Doughty Street has been working on Mr Assange’s European Court of Human Rights application.

This ends a grave, 14 year-long injustice. Mr Assange faced 175 years in US prison in relation to WikiLeaks publications, including the Guantanamo Bay Files, the Afghanistan and Iraq War files, and US diplomatic cables. The publications were newsworthy and important, disclosing among other things that the United States had committed war crimes and grossly misrepresented the number of civilian casualties. The US opened a criminal investigation into these publications 14 years ago and Mr Assange has been under some form of restrictions on his liberty ever since. For the past 5 years he has been held in a high security prison in the UK, facing extradition to the US. 

The terms of the plea deal mean that:

  • He will be immediately released, be permitted to return to Australia and will not spend any further time in prison; and

  • The US will dismiss its case against him and withdraw the extradition request; the United States also agrees not to seek to prosecute him for any other conduct up to the date of the agreement, including for any WikiLeaks publications.

Key points in the deal terms:

  • The guilty plea is in relation to conspiracy to commit espionage, connected to Mr Assange’s communication with Chelsea Manning and receiving, possessing and publishing the material she provided to Wikileaks, including the Guantanamo Bay files, the Afghan and Iraq war publications and the US diplomatic cables. Mr Assange’s guilty plea under the Espionage Act relates to journalistic activity and publications that revealed evidence of war crimes and large scale human rights violations

  • The agreed statement of facts makes no reference to any actual harm caused to any source named in the WikiLeaks publications and makes no allegation of hacking

Mr Assange was released from UK prison on bail on Monday morning and accompanied by the Australian High Commissioner, Stephen Smith, and Mr. Assange’s counsel Barry Pollack and Jennifer Robinson to fly to NMI, to enter his plea in court. The plea was entered on Wednesday morning (AEST). Mr Assange left court and travelled back to Australia, accompanied by Ms Robinson and Mr Pollack, High Commissioner Stephen Smith, and Ambassador Kevin Rudd, the Australian ambassador to the US and former prime minister of Australia.

A press conference will be held on arrival in Australia where Ms Robinson will speak alongside Mr Assange’s wife, Stella Assange, and Barry Pollack, his US attorney.

Plea Deal Explainer

What has been agreed in the plea deal and what is its effect?

Mr Assange is entering into a plea deal in relation to one count under the Espionage Act (conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information (a felony offence under the Espionage Act (18 U.S.C. § 793(g))), based on the receipt and publication of Guantanamo detainee assessment briefs, US State Department cables, Afghanistan and Iraq war-related significant activity reports, and the Iraq rules of engagement. 

Mr Assange will be pleading guilty to the charge before a US court in NMI.  The plea deal has been reached in accordance with the US Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (11(c)(1)(C)).  This count carried a maximum penalty of ten years in prison. It is agreed in the plea deal that his sentence will be time served

Since April 2019, Assange was imprisoned at HMP Belmarsh in London, a maximum-security facility. The US credited the entire period Mr Assange was detained in Belmarsh, approximately 62 months, as time served.

The US has agreed to dismiss the outstanding indictment against Mr Assange and to withdraw the extradition request made to the United Kingdom. The US has also agreed that it will not bring additional charges against Mr Assange based upon conduct that occurred prior to the plea agreement, including all WikiLeaks publications up until the date of the deal.

After entering his plea, Mr Assange will be allowed to travel to Australia immediately, where he will be reunited with his family. 

The US indictment against Mr Assange and UK extradition case

Mr Assange faced 18 criminal counts (including 17 counts under the Espionage Act) and 175 years in prison for publishing the Guantanamo Bay Files, the Afghanistan and Iraq War files, US diplomatic cables, and the Iraq rules of engagement. 

Mr Assange had been in a high security prison since 2019, being held on remand in relation to the US extradition request. Mr Assange fought extradition and was recently granted leave to appeal on the basis that, as a foreign citizen, he would not be guaranteed free speech constitutional protections under the First Amendment. His appeal hearing, in which Edward Fitzgerald KC acts, was due to be heard on 9-10 July 2024.

If Mr Assange was successful in challenging extradition, he would only be protected from extradition from the UK. With available appeal processes, this could have resulted in him spending several more years in prison.

If Mr Assange was unsuccessful, he would have been extradited to the US to prison conditions that the medical evidence showed would likely have resulted his suicide. A criminal trial and associated appeal processes could have resulted in him spending many more years in prison.

By reaching this agreement with the US, and entering a plea, Mr Assange is being released from prison immediately – and will be permitted to travel internationally without the risk of being sought for US extradition.

What are the free speech concerns with the indictment?

As the statement of facts makes clear, Mr Assange has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the espionage act for having communications with a government source, and receiving, possessing and publishing information from that source. This is what journalists do all the time.

The deal terms show that the USG is treating journalism as espionage – and a crime.