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All parties hope to move forward, Assange released

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As negotiations to end the long legal dispute between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the United States reached a critical juncture this spring, prosecutors presented his lawyers with a choice so wild that one client thought it sounded like a line from a Monty Python movie.

“Guam or Saipan?”

This was no joke. The path to freedom, he was told, would pass through one of two American-occupied islands in the blue waters of the Pacific.

Assange fears he could be imprisoned for life in the United States, so he has insisted on a condition of his plea agreement: never to set foot in the United States. The US government requires Assange to plead guilty to a felony violation of the Espionage Act, which requires him to appear in court before a federal judge.

In April, a lawyer in the Justice Department’s national security division broke the impasse with a clever workaround: What if a court were set up outside the United States?

Assange, who spent five years in a London prison, spending 23 hours a day in his cell, soon realized that this was the best deal he had ever gotten. The two sides finally settled on Saipan, an island in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, 6,000 miles from the west coast of the United States and about 2,200 miles from his native Australia.

The long, strange journey caps an even longer, strange legal journey that began when Assange — an ambitious hacktivist who challenged the U.S. national security and political establishment — was alternately praised and condemned for leaking state secrets in the 2010s.

These include U.S. military activities in Iraq and Afghanistanalso Confidential cables shared among diplomatsDuring the 2016 presidential campaign, WikiLeaks published Thousands of emails Information stolen from the Democratic National Committee led to Embarrass the other person and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Yet the talks that led to Assange’s release were unexpectedly amicable and efficient, according to eight people briefed on the negotiations, as both sides looked to end a stalemate that has ensnared Assange and entangled the department in a protracted extradition fight.

The calendar served as an important catalyst. By the end of 2023, senior Justice Department officials concluded that Assange, 52, had already served a much longer sentence than many people convicted of similar crimes (by the time of his release, he would have spent 62 months in prison).

Although Assange has been charged with 18 counts of violating the Espionage Act and faces up to hundreds of years in prison, his legal team calculated in a court filing that if his sentences were stacked together, Assange would likely be sentenced to about four years in prison if extradited, tried and convicted.

Department officials are eager to move on from a cumbersome and time-consuming case that has made some Assange prosecutors targets of WikiLeaks supporters. Another factor in the negotiations is “Assange fatigue,” a senior official said.

In addition, some appointees of President Biden never fully accepted the Trump administration’s allegations against Assange because the alleged activities straddled the line between espionage and lawful disclosures in the public interest, current and former officials said.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland told reporters Thursday that the agreement was in the “best interest of the nation.”

By early 2024, Australian leaders, including Ambassador to the United States Kevin Rudd and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, began pressuring their American counterparts to reach a deal—not because they stood in solidarity with Assange or supported his actions, but because of the length of time he had been imprisoned.

“The Australian government has consistently stated that Mr Assange’s case has dragged on for too long and there is no benefit in continuing to imprison him,” Mr Albanese said. Written on X on the day of his release. “We hope he can come back to Australia.”

On April 11, the fifth anniversary of Assange’s imprisonment, President Biden told reporters at the White House that the United States was “considering” an Australian request to deport him. However, U.S. officials said the White House played no role in resolving the case.

Assange desperately wants to go home. His wife, Stella, told reporters that Assange has not been in good health, and he has spoken candidly about the number of times he has suffered from severe depression over the years. Even if he is in good health, being held in London for nearly 14 years has put him under tremendous pressure. He first lived as an exile in the Ecuadorian embassy to escape the Swedish authorities’ investigation into his sexual assaults, and then spent the last five years in Belmarsh Prison.

Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange’s lawyers In an interview with Australian TV She believes pressure from Australia, combined with a recent positive ruling in the extradition case, led to a shift in negotiations with the Justice Department six months ago.

Late last year, Assange’s Washington-based legal team, led by trial attorney Barry Pollack, submitted proposals in which Assange would plead guilty to misdemeanor charges at a location outside the United States and be sentenced to time already served.

Pollack also suggested that the government charge WikiLeaks, rather than its founder, with felonies for obtaining and disseminating sensitive intelligence documents that Assange obtained 15 years ago from Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst.

The proposal was favored by some prosecutors within the department, who were desperate for an exit route. But after a brief internal discussion, senior officials rejected it and drafted a slightly harsher counterproposal: Assange would plead guilty to a felony charge of conspiracy to obtain and disseminate national defense information, a more serious offense that covered his interactions with Ms. Manning.

Free speech groups argue the deal represents a step backward for press freedom, but Assange doesn’t seem to mind, in concept, pleading guilty to a felony.

Instead, his initial refusal to plead guilty was rooted in his reluctance to appear in a U.S. court because he feared being detained indefinitely or physically assaulted in the United States, Robinson said in the television interview.

She added that he made a “rational choice.”

In May, a London court ruled on narrow grounds that Assange Can appeal his extradition to the United States. This decision gave him hope of eventual victory, but kept him in indefinite prison until then.

Nick Vamos, former head of the extradition unit at the Crown Prosecution Service, which prosecutes criminal cases in England and Wales, said the ruling could “enable an acceleration” of plea deals.

But by then, negotiations for Assange’s release appeared to be well advanced, and U.S. officials said the Justice Department had proposed the Saipan plan before the ruling.

By June, all that was left to do was to arrange the complex legal and shipping logistics.

The Australian government paid $520,000 to rent a private plane to fly Assange from London to Saipan and then back home. Calling on supporters on social media Reimbursement through crowdsourcing.

Then there was the issue of coordinating his release with British authorities, who quietly convened a bail hearing days before he was due to take off on a flight seeking freedom on June 24.

Assange had a second firm demand, one that came into play as the affair drew to a close: that no matter what happened in Saipan, he was to walk out of the courtroom a free man.

Justice Department officials believed the judge in the case, Ramona V. Manglona, ​​was unlikely to undermine the agreement, so as part of early negotiations they agreed to allow him to travel to Australia even if she rejected the deal.

That was not a problem. Judge Manglona accepted the deal without complaint, wishing him “peace” and a happy birthday on July 3, when he will be 53.

Assange offered one last, mild protest, within the limits of the terms of the agreement.

He told the court he believed he was acting “in his capacity as a journalist” when he interacted with Ms Manning – but he took pains to add that he now accepted his actions “violated” US law.

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

He responded: “We reject those views but acknowledge that he believes them.”

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