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“Julian Is Free”: Assange Back Home in Australia After Taking U.S. Plea Deal in “Espionage” Case

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Image Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

Julian Assange has landed in Australia a free man, reuniting with his family Wednesday after pleading guilty to one charge of violating the U.S. Espionage Act as part of a deal with the Justice Department. The WikiLeaks publisher entered his plea on the Pacific island of Saipan, part of the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, which lets him avoid further prison time following five years behind bars in the U.K. awaiting possible extradition to the U.S. He had been facing a possible 175 years in U.S. prison if convicted on charges related to his publication of classified documents in 2010 that revealed U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. “This case is an attack on journalism, it’s an attack on the public’s right to know, and it should never have been brought,” the WikiLeaks founder’s wife, Stella Assange, said at a press conference Wednesday. “Julian should never have spent a single day in prison. But today we celebrate, because today Julian is free.” We also play comments from members of Assange’s legal team, Jennifer Robinson and Barry Pollack, who said the use of the World War I-era Espionage Act to go after a publisher put press freedoms at grave risk.

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StoryJun 25, 2024Press Freedom Advocates Celebrate Julian Assange’s Release, But Warn of Impact of Plea Deal
Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is home in Australia a free man. Assange landed in the Australian capital of Canberra today to cheers from supporters. He disembarked from a chartered jet and waved to the crowd before kissing his wife Stella and lifting her off the ground. He embraced his father, John Shipton, and entered the terminal building with his legal team.

Assange’s arrival in Australia ends a more than 12-year legal ordeal after he published classified documents detailing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Press freedom groups have denounced successive U.S. administrations for targeting Assange, who had been facing 175 years in U.S. prison if he had been extradited and convicted.

Twelve years ago this month, Assange entered the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was given political asylum. He spent seven years there. He has spent the last five years locked up in the harsh Belmarsh Prison in London.

Earlier today, Julian Assange flew from London to the Pacific island of Saipan in Northern Mariana Islands, where he entered a U.S. district court and pled guilty to a single felony count of illegally obtaining and disclosing national security material. The judge, Ramona Manglona, sentenced him to the five years he had already spent behind bars, saying, quote, “You will be able to walk out of this courtroom a free man. I hope there will be some peace restored,” she said.

Just moments before this broadcast, Julian Assange’s wife Stella and his lawyers, Barry Pollack and Jen Robinson, held a news conference in Canberra. This is Stella Moris Assange.

STELLA ASSANGE: I wish to thank the prime minister, Albanese, the officials who have been working indefat on securing Julian’s release. I’d also like to thank the Australian people, who have made this possible, because without their support, there would not be the political space to be able to achieve Julian’s freedom. And that support is across — across the board. I thank the opposition for also supporting Julian’s release. It took all — all of them. It took millions of people. It took people working behind the scenes, people protesting on the streets for days and weeks and months and years. And we achieved it.

Julian wanted me to sincerely thank everyone. He wanted to be here, but you have to understand what he’s been through. He needs time. He needs to recuperate. And this is a process. I ask you, please, to give us space, to give us privacy to find our place, to let our family be a family, before he can speak again at a time of his choosing.

I think it’s important to recognize that Julian’s release and the breakthrough in the negotiations came at a time where there had been a breakthrough in the legal case in the U.K., in the extradition, where the High Court had allowed permission to appeal. There was a court date set for the 9th and 10th of July, an upcoming court date in which Julian would be able to raise the First Amendment argument at the High Court. And it is in this context that things finally started to move. I think it revealed how uncomfortable the United States government is, in fact, of having these arguments aired, because this case — the fact is that this case is an attack on journalism, it’s an attack on the public’s right to know, and it should never have been brought. Julian should never have spent a single day in prison. But today we celebrate, because today Julian is free.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange’s U.S. lawyer, Barry Pollack, also addressed reporters in the Australian capital of Canberra and spoke about the details of the case.

BARRY POLLACK: Good evening. Earlier this evening, earlier today, in a courthouse in Saipan, we had a hearing that brought to a close a prosecution that never should have been brought. Julian Assange has for so many years sacrificed for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. He has sacrificed his own freedom. And finally, today, that tragic situation ended, and we are all grateful that Julian is back home in Australia where he belongs, back with Stella, back with his children, reunited with his father.

It is unprecedented in the United States to use the Espionage Act to criminally prosecute a journalist or a publisher. In the more than 100-year history of that law, it has never been used in this fashion. It is certainly our hope that it will never again be used in this fashion.

Julian spent years in Belmarsh. No one should spend a day in prison for giving the public newsworthy and important information — in this case, information that the United States government had committed war crimes, that there were civilian casualties exponentially greater than the United States government had admitted in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was definitely in the public’s interest to have this information, and Julian provided it to the public. He performed a tremendous public service, not a crime.

The problem with the Espionage Act is there is no First Amendment defense in the Espionage Act. It does, by its terms, not matter the reason why you published.

The U.S., for years, the U.S. government, has claimed that these publications did great harm. Today in court, the United States government admitted that there is not a single person anywhere that they can produce that was actually harmed by these publications.

Hopefully, this is the end not just of the case against Julian Assange, but the end of the case against journalism. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Barry Pollack, Assange’s attorney. His longtime attorney Jennifer Robinson then took questions from reporters, along with Pollock and Stella Assange.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: To start with, there’s no evidence of any actual harm. And that’s exactly what the U.S. government acknowledged in court today in Saipan. So, there is no evidence that anyone was physically harmed as a result of those publications.

The public interest in those publications is clear: evidence of war crimes, that the U.S. had not disclosed the extent of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of torture and other forms of human rights abuse around the world. There is no denying the public interest in WikiLeaks’ publications, which is reflected in the reasons why WikiLeaks has won the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism, the Sydney Peace Prize, the fact that Julian has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since those publications. So, to suggest that this was not in the public interest, I don’t understand the basis upon which they could possibly suggest that. And so, I think it’s — this is clear.

REPORTER 1: Stella, can we have a question for you [inaudible]? That moment on the tarmac where you embraced Julian must have been incredibly surreal. Was that the moment you realized that this was over, that he was home?

STELLA ASSANGE: Yes, I was overcome by emotion when I first heard that there were crowds cheering, that I didn’t even know were there, behind a fence, because it was dark. And then I heard them cheer more and more and flashes. And then I turned the corner, and then I saw that Julian was coming. And we embraced. And, I mean, I think you’ve seen the pictures. I don’t want to express in words what is obvious from the image.

REPORTER 2: Stella, what comes next for Julian Assange? Will this revitalize WikiLeaks? Will this [inaudible], what have you? What’s next?

STELLA ASSANGE: Julian needs time to recover, to get used to freedom.

REPORTER 2: Don’t touch me!

STELLA ASSANGE: Someone told me yesterday, who had been through something similar, that freedom comes slowly. And I want Julian to have that space to rediscover freedom slowly — and quickly.

REPORTER 3: Jen, one of my colleagues mentioned the Podesta Files earlier. I think he may not have read them. Could you, now that you have the opportunity, just remind us of how that actually reformed the DNC and the corruption within. The Podesta Files were really good for the Democratic National Congress, yes?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Look, there was a huge — there’s clearly public interest in the DNC materials that was released by WikiLeaks. And in terms of the legality of those publications, there’s a U.S. court decision showing that it had the highest possible protection of the First Amendment. So, from a principle point of view, people might not like the politics of any particular publication, but that publication is absolutely protected by the First Amendment, as U.S. courts have found.

REPORTER 4: Jen, are there any post-release conditions for Julian — prolonged periods the U.S. has said that he’s banned from returning, stepping foot in the U.S., gag orders, anything like that? And can you and Barry give us a sense of the negotiations with the DOJ, particularly given Julian’s strong-held view that he was not guilty of a crime.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: I think it’s best Barry speaks to the terms of the plea deal.

BARRY POLLACK: There are absolutely no restrictions on Julian. The case against him is over. There is no gag order. There are no other restrictions. He is going to be able to go back to whatever life he chooses to build with Stella and his family.

The negotiations were a protracted process that went on for several months, sort of in fits and starts. We were not close to any sort of a resolution until a few weeks ago, when the Department of Justice reengaged, and there have been very intense negotiations over the last few weeks.

One thing we were very clear about was that any resolution would have to end this matter and that Julian would be free, that he was not going to do additional time in prison, he was not going to do time under supervision, he was not going to do time under a gag order. So, that was one absolute requirement.

Another significant point of negotiation was where the plea would be taken. Julian did not want to come to the United States in any form. Ultimately, obviously, we negotiated Saipan, under conditions where he would be released in the U.K. He would come to Saipan not as a prisoner of the United States or the United Kingdom, and that we would come in and leave on the same day, which is exactly what happened.

And other provisions of the plea that were very significant, the United States agreed that they are not going to bring any other charges against Julian for any conduct, any publications, any newsgathering, anything at all that occurred prior to the time of the plea. So, even if he had prevailed in the extradition proceeding, that would have just resolved this case. This resolves any possible case that the United States could bring against Julian for any subject matter. So, that was obviously very significant to us.

REPORTER 5: Thank you. Jen and also Stella — Stella, you called yesterday your hopes for a pardon to be granted to Julian. How do you see that playing out? Would you like the Australian government to support that call? What could be possibly done to actually achieve that outcome, in your view?

STELLA ASSANGE: Look, I think today we celebrate Julian’s freedom. Today is the day that the plea deal was approved by the judge. I think it’s also a day where I hope journalists and editors and publishers everywhere realize the danger of the — of this U.S. case against Julian that criminalizes, that has secured a conviction for newsgathering and publishing information that was in the public interest, that was true, that the public deserved to know, and that precedent now can and will be used in the future against the rest of the press. So it is in the interest of all of the press to seek for this current state of affairs to change, through reform of the Espionage Act, through increased press protections, and, yes, eventually, when the time comes — not today — a pardon.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Stella Moris Assange, Julian Assange’s wife — she is also a human rights attorney — along with Assange attorneys Barry Pollack and his longtime lawyer Jennifer Robinson, speaking at a news conference in the Australian capital of Canberra, just minutes after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrived in Australia a free man after a 14-year legal ordeal. When we come back, we get response from Canberra, in Australia, and here in New York. Stay with us.

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“A Big Deal”: Julian Assange’s Release Welcomed by Australian Senator After Grassroots Campaign

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