Julian Assange arrives on Pacific island for court hearing after striking US plea deal

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Julian Assange has arrived on a remote island in the Pacific where his long-running campaign to avoid extradition to the United States will formally end.

The WikiLeaks founder is due to appear at a court hearing on the island, after agreeing a US plea deal that will see him plead guilty to a criminal charge and go free.

He founder was granted bail by the High Court and released from Belmarsh Prison on Monday following negotiations with US authorities.

Court papers filed by the US Justice Department show Assange is scheduled to appear in federal court to plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defence information.

It followed the publication of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

He will return to his home country of Australia after his plea and sentencing, scheduled for Wednesday morning local time in the Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth in the Western Pacific.

A chartered plane carrying Assange left Stansted Airport on Monday before landing at a Bangkok airport for refuelling at around noon local time (6am BST) on Tuesday.

His wife Stella Assange told the PA news agency he is paying $500,000 for the flight to Australia.

His father John Shipton said his freedom had “lifted a huge burden” from his family.

In a statement posted on X, the official WikiLeaks account said Assange left the maximum security prison on Monday “after having spent 1901 days there”.

The statement continued: “He was granted bail by the High Court in London and was released at Stansted airport during the afternoon, where he boarded a plane and departed the UK.

“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.

“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.”

Video posted to X by WikiLeaks showed Assange, seated and dressed casually in jeans and a shirt, discussing the text on a sheet of paper.

He is then shown walking up steps onto a Vista Jet aircraft.

Speaking on Assange's release, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told the nation's parliament on Tuesday "we want him brought home to Australia".

He said: "I've been very clear as both the Labour leader and opposition, but also as prime minister that - regardless of the views that people have about Mr Assange's activities - the case has dragged on for too long.

"There is nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia."

Mr Albanese added that Australian diplomatic forces "have engaged and advocated Australia's interest using all appropriate channels to support a positive outcome", which he took up early in his role after being elected prime minister in 2022.

He added: "I will have more to say when these legal proceedings have concluded, which I hope will be very soon, and I will report as appropriate at that time."

The WikiLeaks statement also thanked “all who stood by us, fought for us, and remained utterly committed in the fight for his freedom”.

It said: “After more than five years in a 2×3 metre cell, isolated 23 hours a day, he will soon reunite with his wife Stella Assange, and their children, who have only known their father from behind bars.

“WikiLeaks published ground-breaking stories of government corruption and human rights abuses, holding the powerful accountable for their actions. As editor-in-chief, Julian paid severely for these principles, and for the people’s right to know.

The plane thought to be carrying Julian Assange lands in Bangkok (AP)
The plane thought to be carrying Julian Assange lands in Bangkok (AP)

“As he returns to Australia, we thank all who stood by us, fought for us, and remained utterly committed in the fight for his freedom. Julian’s freedom is our freedom.”

In a separate post on X, Ms Assange said: “Julian is free!!!!

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

She later posted a picture of her speaking to Assange on the phone from in front of Sydney Opera House.

“Julian calling into Sydney from Stansted airport last night (his day time),” she wrote.

Assange’s mother, Christine Assange, told Australia’s Sky News that she is “grateful” her son’s ordeal is “finally coming to an end”.

She said: “This shows the importance and power of quiet diplomacy. Many have used my son’s situation to push their own agenda, so I am grateful to those unseen, hard-working people who put Julian‘s welfare first.

“The past 14 years have obviously taken a toll on me as a mother, so I wish to thank you in advance for respecting my privacy.”

Former British ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray said Assange’s family is “elated” at his release, telling Sky News: “It’s been very taxing. It’s no secret, being so many years in a maximum security jail.

“Why on earth somebody who is a journalist, who never harmed anybody in his life, is locked up in a jail with the worst terrorists in the UK … it’s very difficult for anybody to justify.”

His father said recent court hearings in the UK gave him hope that the "tide was turning" in his son's favour, as well as increasing pressure from the Australian government.

He said he hoped his son will spend time "walking along beaches and listening to birds" in the next few weeks and months.

"I had an inkling that something was changing from the demeanour of the court in the last few hearings, especially with the concerns articulated by the judges," Mr Shipton said.

"I never gave up hope, never collapsed into despair that this day would arrive. I am absolutely elated - it is as though a huge burden has been lifted."

Assange had been locked in a lengthy legal battle in the UK over his extradition, which saw him enter and live in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in 2012 before his detention in Belmarsh prison.

In a January 2021 ruling, then-district judge Vanessa Baraitser said Assange should not be sent to the US, citing a real and “oppressive” risk of suicide, while ruling against him on all other issues.

Julian Assange pictured back in 2016 on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy (AP)
Julian Assange pictured back in 2016 on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy (AP)

Later that year, US authorities won a High Court bid to overturn this block, paving the way towards Assange’s extradition.

Assange was due to bring his own challenge to the High Court in London in early July after he was recently given the go-ahead to challenge the original judge’s dismissal of parts of his case.

Assange has been in custody at HMP Belmarsh for more than five years, fighting a lengthy legal battle against extradition to the United States.

In a court order released on Tuesday, Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Johnson said Mr Assange had left the jurisdiction of England and Wales at 6.36pm on Monday, after a plea agreement was signed on June 19.

The judges added that it was "anticipated that a plea will be entered and accepted on Wednesday, June 26 2024, after which the United States have undertaken to withdraw the extradition request".

They also said that the lawyers for Assange and the US authorities would need to provide an agreed document related to the pending extradition appeal proceedings by Friday afternoon.

The Crown Prosecution Service said a bail hearing for Assange was held in private last Thursday.

Stephen Parkinson, director of public prosecutions, said: “Thirteen-and-a-half years and two extradition requests after he was first arrested, Julian Assange left the UK yesterday, following a bail hearing last Thursday, held in private at his request.

“I am proud of the way our extradition unit has dealt with this case. They have acted with expertise and skill, under international scrutiny, to provide legal advice to both the Swedish and US authorities.

“This case has absorbed considerable time and resource from the criminal justice system over many years. The intended outcome of the plea agreement will be to accomplish the primary objective of delivering justice. It will also save the continuing substantial resource outlay involved in litigating this matter further in England.”

John Sheehan, head of extradition at the CPS, said: “This has been a highly complex matter involving advising and representing the Swedish and US authorities. In this period, the CPS’s extradition unit has faced and dealt with novel and challenging legal issues. Mr Assange has also utilised all the legal protections available to him.

“This has culminated in facilitating the arrangements necessary to enable Mr Assange to leave the UK legally and safely.”