Assange Freed, but Supporters Say Guilty Plea a ‘Big Blow to Freedom of the Press’

Posted by: John Phoenix
By Brenda Baletti, Ph.D. | The Defender |June 25, 2024

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange agreed to a plea deal with the U.S. government and was released on bail, leaving Belmarsh maximum security prison and the United Kingdom (U.K.) on Monday morning WikiLeaks announced on X, formerly known as Twitter.

His wife, Stella Assange, an attorney who has worked for years for his release, celebrated the deal on 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,” WikiLeaks wrote. “This created the space for a long period of negotiations with the US Department of Justice, leading to a deal that has not yet been formally finalised.”

A federal judge must still approve the plea deal.

Assange is en route to appear Wednesday in a U.S. federal court in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands near Australia. He is scheduled to return to Australia after the hearing.

In exchange for his release, Assange agreed to plead guilty to a single felony count of illegally obtaining and disclosing national security material in violation of the U.S. Espionage Act, The New York Times reported.

Under the terms of the agreement, Justice Department prosecutors will seek a 62-month sentence, which is equal to the amount of time Assange has served at Belmarsh while he fought his extradition to the U.S. The deal would credit that period as time served, which would allow Assange to return home, according to CNN.

The deal would also disallow him from later making any claim that his long prison time in Belmarsh, where he was confined to a cell for 23 hours a day, was unjust, according to journalist Glenn Greenwald.

U.S. authorities were pursuing Assange for publishing classified materials shared with him by U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning in 2010 and 2011. He faced 18 counts from a 2019 indictment for his alleged role in the breach that carried a maximum of up to 175 years in prison, CNN reported.

“US officials alleged that Assange goaded Manning into obtaining thousands of pages of unfiltered US diplomatic cables that potentially endangered confidential sources, Iraq war-related significant activity reports and information related to Guantanamo Bay detainees,” CNN wrote.

‘A very courageous human being,’ and ‘a generational hero’

Journalists, politicians, press freedom organizations and countless supporters celebrated Assange’s release, although they remained outraged over what they believed to be his unjustified detainment and that he was forced to plead guilty, despite having committed no crime.

Greenwald tweeted:

There’s so much to say about the Assange case, the outrage of his being detained for almost 15 years, being forced to plead guilty despite committing no crime.
But on a human and personal level, it’s beautiful to watch him leave prison a free man, and finally leave the UK.

Independent presidential candidate and Children’s Health Defense (CHD) Chairman on leave Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said Assange had to take the deal to get out of the life-threatening conditions under which he was being held, “but the security state has imposed a horrifying precedent and dealt a big blow to freedom of the press.”

Francis Boyle, J.D., Ph.D., professor of international law at the University of Illinois, told The Defender that Assange is “a very courageous human being,” who “has suffered enough. He stood up and he did the best he could.”

Boyle said that the plea deal required Assange to agree to a conviction under subsection G of the Espionage Act but also to concede that he had violated other subsections.

“In the future, the federal government can use this as a precedent to go after journalists” for violating those subsections of the act. “In my opinion, this is a loaded gun cocked at the heads of all journalists in the future.”

Boyle said the Espionage Act was never intended to apply to journalists engaged in their trade under the First Amendment and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Basically what the feds are doing here is using the Espionage Act to set up a de facto United Kingdom Official Secrets Act,” which makes it a crime for government employees in the U.K. to leak information deemed “damaging” to the government.

It means that any journalist in the future who publishes classified information or stories based on classified information could be prosecuted for violating one or more provisions of the Espionage Act, Boyle said — even though the First Amendment is meant to protect the press.

Press freedom group PEN America, which has long called for the U.S. to drop the charges against Assange, called on Congress today in a press release to reform the Espionage Act to protect press freedoms. It wrote:

“Congress should seize this opportunity to immediately reform the Espionage Act to include an exception for information disclosures that advance the public interest. This move would send a strong signal in defense of press freedom, strengthening protections for journalists in the United States and reducing the risk of the law being wielded for political purposes in the future.”

Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006 as a nonprofit media organization to hold governments and political leaders accountable by publishing large datasets of censored and restricted official materials on war, spying and corruption.

The organization gained international attention in 2010 when it released the “Collateral Murder” video, showing classified raw footage shot from a U.S. Army Apache helicopter depicting the killing of over a dozen people in Iraq — including two Reuters reporters — along with other videos and documents leaked by Manning.

The organization also published other documents related to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The revelations became major global stories and led to intense scrutiny of American involvement in foreign conflicts.

Initially embraced by mainstream media organizations like The Guardian and the Times, Assange later became the target of critics in the mainstream, including those very outlets, Matt Taibbi reported on Substack. They alleged that WikiLeaks compromised national security by publishing classified material, tried to implicate him in Russiagate and said he wasn’t a journalist.

Assange spent almost 15 years in various forms of detention. In 2012, facing sex-related allegations from Swedish prosecutors — which were subsequently dropped in 2019 — Assange said he was willing to travel to Sweden for questioning. However, Swedish authorities wouldn’t guarantee that if he appeared for questioning he wouldn’t be extradited to the U.S.

He sought and was granted asylum by the Ecuadorian government and took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy from 2012-2018, where he stayed in a two-bedroom apartment with no outdoor space and the CIA spied on him.

In 2019, under pressure from the U.S. government, Ecuador ended Assange’s asylum.

The British police arrested him and put him in Belmarsh prison, which the BBC has called “Britain’s Guantanamo.” He has spent the last nearly six years fighting extradition to the U.S., where he was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 by allegedly committing conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information, following the massive WikiLeaks disclosure in 2010.

Brenda Baletti, Ph.D., is a senior reporter for The Defender. She wrote and taught about capitalism and politics for 10 years in the writing program at Duke University. She holds a Ph.D. in human geography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s from the University of Texas at Austin.

This article was originally published by The Defender — Children’s Health Defense’s News & Views Website under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Please consider subscribing to The Defender or donating to Children’s Health Defense..


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