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Julian Assange released from prison as part of U.S. plea deal

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Julian Assange after his release from prison

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who spent more than a decade in an embassy and a British prison to avoid extradition, has been released from prison as part of a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors, officials say.

Assange was released from Belmarsh prison in London on Monday afternoon and taken to Stansted Airport, where he boarded a charter plane which is taking him to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the western Pacific.

Assange is expected to plead guilty to a charge of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defense information when he appears in court at 9 a.m. local time on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET on Tuesday).

Specifically, Assange acknowledges that, from 2009 through 2011, he knowingly and unlawfully conspired with U.S. Army private Chelsea Manning to obtain and distribute classified U.S. documents through WikiLeaks.

Under the terms of this deal, Assange will be sentenced to 62 months in prison, with credit for time served in British prison. This means he will be immediately released and allowed to return to Australia, where he was born.

In a letter to the court, prosecutors asked for the plea and sentencing to be scheduled on the same day, noting Assange’s objection to traveling to the U.S. mainland and the Northern Mariana Islands’ proximity to Australia.

“After more than five years in a 2×3 metre cell, isolated 23 hours a day, he will soon reunite with his wife Stella Assange, and their children, who have only known their father from behind bars,” WikiLeaks said in a statement.

It added: “WikiLeaks published groundbreaking stories of government corruption and human rights abuses, holding the powerful accountable for their actions. As editor-in-chief, Julian paid severely for these principles, and for the people’s right to know. As he returns to Australia, we thank all who stood by us, fought for us, and remained utterly committed in the fight for his freedom.”

The plea deal ends nearly 14 years of legal issues for Assange, who was first arrested in the UK in 2010 because he was wanted for questioning over rape allegations in Sweden.

Julian Assange on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2018 (Credit: BBC)

The allegations, which Assange claimed were politically motivated, were unrelated to Assange’s work for WikiLeaks, which caused a diplomatic scandal for the U.S. when it released a large number of classified documents.

The allegations came just months after WikiLeaks’ first big scoop in April 2010, when it released a classified video which showed a 2007 U.S. helicopter attack that killed unarmed civilians in Iraq, including two journalists working for Reuters.

When the UK’s top court approved his extradition to Sweden in 2012, Assange entered the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was granted political asylum, allowing him to stay inside the diplomatic compound, beyond the reach of British police.

Swedish prosecutors dropped the rape investigation in May 2017 but British police said Assange would still be arrested if he tried to leave the embassy, citing a British warrant which was issued after he failed to surrender for his extradition to Sweden.

Ecuador revoked his asylum in April 2019 and Assange was arrested by British police. The United States then unveiled a previously sealed indictment, charging Assange with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. He had since remained in prison while fighting his extradition to the U.S.

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