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A desire from all sides to move on ends with freedom for Assange

As negotiations to end the long-running legal battle between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the United States reached a critical point this spring, prosecutors presented his lawyers with a choice so absurd that one person involved thought it sounded like a line from a Monty Python movie.

“Guam or Saipan?”

It was no joke. His path to freedom, he was told, would be through one of two American-occupied islands in the blue expanse of the Pacific.

Mr. Assange, who feared being imprisoned in the United States for the rest of his life, had long met one condition for any settlement: that he never set foot in the country. The US government, in turn, had demanded that Mr Assange plead guilty to a crime of violating the Espionage Act, which required him to appear before a federal judge.

In April, a lawyer from the Justice Department’s national security division broke the impasse with a cunning solution: How about a U.S. courtroom that wasn’t actually on continental America?

Mr. Assange, exhausted by five years in a London prison — where he spent 23 hours a day in his cell — soon realized that the deal was the best he had ever been offered. The two sides reached an agreement on Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, 6,000 miles from the U.S. west coast and about 2,200 miles from his native Australia. (Guam was slightly closer to home than Saipan.)

This long, strange journey capped an even longer, stranger legal journey that began after Mr. Assange — an ambitious hacker activist who took on America’s national security and political institutions — was alternately celebrated and vilified for exposing state secrets in the United States. 2010s.

These include material on US military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as confidential cables shared among diplomats. During the 2016 presidential campaign, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, leading to revelations that embarrassed the party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Still, the negotiations that led to Assange’s release were surprisingly amicable and efficient, as both sides acted on a shared desire to end a stalemate that has left Assange in limbo and the ministry embroiled in a protracted extradition dispute, according to eight people with knowledge of the negotiations.

The calendar was an important catalyst. In late 2023, senior Justice Department officials concluded that Mr. Assange, now 52, ​​had already served a significantly longer sentence than many people convicted of similar crimes (he served 62 months when released).

Although charged under the Espionage Act on 18 counts and facing a prison sentence of hundreds of years, Assange, if extradited, tried and convicted, would most likely have been sentenced to approximately four years in prison if his sentences had been consecutive. his team of lawyers calculated in a court document.

Department officials were eager to get rid of the difficult, time-consuming case that had made some Assange prosecutors targets of WikiLeaks supporters. A senior official said another factor in the negotiations was “Assange fatigue.”

Moreover, some officials appointed under President Biden were never entirely comfortable with the Trump administration’s decision to charge Assange with activities that crossed the line between espionage and legitimate disclosures in the public interest, current and former officials said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman had no comment. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland told reporters Thursday that the deal served the “best interests” of the country.

In early 2024, leaders in Australia, including Kevin Rudd, the ambassador to the United States, and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, began pressuring their American counterparts to reach a deal – not so much out of solidarity with Mr Assange, or support for his actions, but because he had spent so much time in captivity.

“The Australian government has consistently said that Mr Assange’s case has gone on too long and that there is nothing to be gained from his continued incarceration,” Mr Albanese said. wrote on X on the day of his release. “We want him brought back to Australia.”

On April 11, the fifth anniversary of Assange’s incarceration, President Biden told reporters at the White House that the United States was “considering” Australia’s request to return him to his home. Still, U.S. officials said the White House played no role in resolving the case.

Mr. Assange desperately wanted to go home. He had health problems, his wife Stella told reporters, and Mr. Assange had spoken openly about his bouts of severe depression over the years. Even if he had been in perfect health, the toll of being cooped up in London for almost 14 years was enormous. He first lived as an exile in the Ecuadorian embassy, ​​in an attempt to escape Swedish authorities who were investigating him for sexual abuse, and spent the last five of those years in Belmarsh prison.

One of Mr Assange’s lawyers, Jennifer Robinson, said an Australian TV interviewer She believed the Australian pressure campaign, combined with a recent positive ruling in his extradition case, had caused a shift in talks with the Justice Department that began six months ago.

Late last year, Assange’s legal team in Washington, led by attorney Barry Pollack, filed motions in which Assange would plead guilty to a crime, from a location outside the United States, and be sentenced to time served .

Mr. Pollack also suggested that the government sue WikiLeaks, not its founder, for obtaining and distributing sensitive intelligence documents that Mr. Assange obtained 15 years ago from Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. military intelligence analyst.

The offer appealed to some prosecutors within the department, who were eager to find a way out. But after a short period of internal discussions, senior officials rejected that approach and drafted a somewhat tougher counterproposal: Mr. Assange would face a single felony charge of conspiracy to obtain and disseminate national defense information, a more serious offense involving his interactions with Ms. Manning included.

Free speech groups believe the deal represents a setback for press freedom, but Assange appears to have no problem in theory admitting to a crime on those grounds.

Instead, his initial refusal to plead guilty to a crime was rooted in his reluctance to appear in an American court for fear of being detained indefinitely or physically attacked in the United States, Ms. Robinson said in the TV interview.

He made “a rational choice,” she added.

In May, a London court ruled on limited grounds that Assange could appeal his extradition to the United States. That decision offered him the promise of eventual victory, but left him locked up indefinitely until then.

Nick Vamos, former head of extradition for the Crown Prosecution Service, which is responsible for bringing criminal cases in England and Wales, believes the ruling could have “triggered” an acceleration of the plea deal.

But negotiations for Mr. Assange’s release appeared to be well advanced by then. The Justice Department had launched its Saipan plan before the verdict, U.S. officials said.

In June, all we had to do was arrange the complex legal and transport logistics.

The Australian government has put up the $520,000 needed to charter a private jet to fly Mr. Assange from London to Saipan, and then back home. His team is addressing supporters on social media to crowdsource the refund.

Then there was the matter of coordinating his release with British authorities, who quietly scheduled a bail hearing a few days before he was due to leave on his June 24 flight to freedom.

Mr Assange had a second ironclad claim, which came into play as the saga neared its conclusion: Whatever happened in Saipan, he planned to leave the court a free man.

Justice Department officials saw little chance that the judge in the case, Ramona V. Manglona, ​​would renege on the deal. So, as part of earlier negotiations, they agreed that he would leave for Australia even if she rejected the agreement.

It was no problem. Judge Manglona accepted the deal without complaint and wished him “peace” and a happy birthday on July 3, when he turns 53.

Mr. Assange made one modest final protest, within the constraints imposed by the terms of the deal.

He told the court he believed he had been “working as a journalist” during his interaction with Ms Manning – but was at pains to add that he now accepted his actions had been “a breach” of US law.

Matthew McKenzie, one of the lead prosecutors in the case, disagreed.

“We reject these sentiments, but accept that he believes them,” he replied.

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