WikiLeaks' Julian Assange to be freed after guilty plea

AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT / WIKILEAKS

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is due to plead guilty to violating US espionage law, in a deal that will end his imprisonment in Britain and allow him to return home to Australia, ending a 14-year legal odyssey.

Assange, 52, has agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified US national defense documents, according to filings in the US District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

He is due to be sentenced to 62 months of time already served at a hearing in Saipan on Wednesday. The island in the Pacific was chosen due to Assange's opposition to travelling to the mainland US and for its proximity to Australia, prosecutors said.

Assange left Belmarsh prison in the UK on Monday before being bailed by the UK High Court and boarding a flight that afternoon, Wikileaks said in a statement posted on social media platform X.

"This is the result of a global campaign that spanned grass-roots organisers, press freedom campaigners, legislators and leaders from across the political spectrum, all the way to the United Nations," the statement said.

A video posted on X by Wikileaks showed Assange dressed in a blue shirt and jeans signing a document before boarding a private jet with the markings of charter firm VistaJet.

He will return to Australia after the hearing, the Wikileaks statement added, referring to the hearing in Saipan.

"Julian is free!!!!" his wife, Stella Assange, said in a post on X.

"Words cannot express our immense gratitude to YOU - yes YOU, who have all mobilised for years and years to make this come true."

The only VistaJet plane that departed Stansted on Monday afternoon was headed to Bangkok, FlightRadar24 data shows. A spokesperson for Assange in Australia declined to comment on his flight plans. VistaJet did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Australian government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, has been pressing for Assange's release but declined to comment on the legal proceedings as they were ongoing.

"Prime Minister Albanese has been clear - Mr Assange’s case has dragged on for too long and there is nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration," a government spokesperson said.

A lawyer for Assange did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

WikiLeaks in 2010 released hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. military documents on Washington's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - the largest security breaches of their kind in US military history - along with swaths of diplomatic cables.

Assange was indicted during former President Donald Trump's administration over WikiLeaks' mass release of secret US documents, which were leaked by Chelsea Manning, a former US military intelligence analyst who was also prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

The trove of more than 700,000 documents included diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts such as a 2007 video of a US Apache helicopter firing at suspected insurgents in Iraq, killing a dozen people including two Reuters news staff. That video was released in 2010.

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