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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange strikes plea deal with the U.S.

A supporter of Julian Assange protests in front of Westminster Magistrates Court in London, while calling for his release from Belmarsh Prison, on April 14.
Peter Nicholls
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A supporter of Julian Assange protests in front of Westminster Magistrates Court in London, while calling for his release from Belmarsh Prison, on April 14.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has entered into a plea deal with the U.S. government, bringing an end to a years-long international saga over his handling of national security secrets.

Assange is preparing to plead guilty to a single count of conspiring to obtain and disclose information related to the national defense in a U.S. federal court in Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific, this week, according to newly filed court papers.

Under the terms of the agreement, Assange faces a sentence of 62 months, equivalent to the time he has already served at Belmarsh Prison in the United Kingdom while fighting extradition to the United States. He is expected to be released and to return to his home country of Australia following the court proceeding later this week.

Australian leaders have been lobbying the Biden administration to drop the criminal case for years. President Biden confirmed at a news conference in April that American authorities had been “considering” such a move.

A federal grand jury in Virginia indicted Assange on espionage and computer misuse charges in 2019, in what the Justice Department described as one of the largest compromises of classified information in American history.

The indictment accused Assange of conspiring with then-military Private Chelsea Manning to obtain and then publish secret reports about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables. Prosecutors said Assange published those materials on his site WikiLeaks without properly scrubbing them of sensitive information, putting informants and others at grave risk of harm.

“No responsible actor, journalist or otherwise, would purposefully publish the names of individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in a war zone, exposing them to the gravest of dangers,” said former Assistant Attorney General John Demers at the time of that indictment.

Manning was arrested in 2010 and served seven years in prison before President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.

Assange’s case attracted support from human rights and journalism groups including Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, fearing the Espionage Act case against Assange could create precedent for charging journalists with national security crimes.

His interactions with the justice system have followed a byzantine path. Assange spent seven years hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after Swedish officials accused him of sexual assault, an arrangement that appeared to frustrate both Assange and his hosts.

Ultimately, Swedish police withdrew the accusations, but, next, authorities in the U.K. took him into custody for allegedly violating bail.

Then, the American government sought to extradite him, a process that limped through the courts for years. The plea deal averts more legal proceedings over the extradition that had been set for early July.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.