July 22, 2024

Julian Assange is just hours away from touching down on a tiny Pacific island for what appears to be the defining moment of a decade-plus legal saga over the publication of a trove of classified documents.

The plane carrying the WikiLeaks founder to apparent freedom is due to land in a remote US territory in the ocean between Papua New Guinea and Japan at 6am for the final stage of a plea deal reached with the US Justice Department.

For a case that’s consisted almost entirely of slow, incremental developments in various British courts over the past five years Assange has been behind bars, the biggest change of all came out of the blue. 

READ MORE: A timeline of Julian Assange’s legal saga, from starting WikiLeaks to his plea deal with the US Justice Department 

Before anyone outside his inner circle even knew it, the Australian journalist, so long a recluse or a prisoner, was out of London’s Belmarsh prison and out of the country, winging his way to Saipan.

The 115-square-kilometre outcrop in the Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth in the Western Pacific, is still almost 3000 kilometres from Australia, but closer than he’s been to home for at least 12 years.

A chartered flight from London that Stella Assange confirmed was carrying her husband landed at Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport at 12.30pm yesterday (3.30pm AEST) and took off about 12 hours later after refuelling.

WikiLeaks shared video and photos of Assange’s journey as he made his way to London Stansted Airport, boarded the plane and arrived in Thailand.

Gabriel Shipton said the family was “totally overwhelmed” by the prospect of his brother finally coming home.

https://twitter.com/wikileaks/status/1805611413970305184

“We’ve been fighting for this – for Julian’s freedom, for many, many years,” he told 9News.

“You know, it’s consumed all our lives. It’s a very overwhelming moment.

“Julian has a couple of … hurdles to jump through yet before he’s safe and sound on Australian soil. 

“So we’ve got all our fingers and toes crossed to make, to give him all that positive energy that that will happen.” 

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After the flight accompanied by Australia’s High Commissioner to the UK, Stephen Smith, Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge under the US Espionage Act, resolving a long-running legal saga that spanned multiple.

In return, prosecutors will only seek a 62-month sentence – the time Assange has been held in the high-security Belmarsh Prison – allowing him to walk free immediately on time already served.

The hearing is set down for 9am and his loved ones hope to see him back in Australia tonight.

British judicial officials confirmed that Assange left the UK on Monday evening (early yesterday AEST) after being granted bail at a secret hearing last week.

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Mrs Assange told the BBC from Australia that it had been “touch and go” over the past 72 hours whether the deal would go ahead but she felt “elated” at the news. 

She said details of the agreement would be made public once the judge had signed off on it.

“He will be a free man once it is signed off by a judge,” she said, adding that she still didn’t think it was real.

The lawyer who married the WikiLeaks founder in prison in 2022 and had two of his children said her husband was not permitted to fly commercial airlines to Saipan or Australia and that the jet would cost $US520,000 ($783,300), and launched an online fundraiser.

She said he would seek a pardon, telling Reuters the Espionage Act guilty plea was “obviously a very serious concern for journalists and national security journalists in general”.

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The WikiLeaks founder’s family and supporters have praised Australian officials’ efforts to free him, marked publicly by a February motion in parliament calling for the Australian citizen to be allowed to come home, saying “this thing cannot just go on and on and on indefinitely”.

Soon after, US President Joe Biden confirmed the Justice Department was considering dropping the prosecution.

“Regardless of the views that people have about Mr Assange’s activities, the case has dragged on for too long,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told parliament yesterday. 

“There’s nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia.”

The sentiments have been echoed across the political spectrum in Australia, with MPs and senators from the government, Coalition and crossbench welcoming the development.

Assange has been heralded by many around the world as a hero who brought to light military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the files published by WikiLeaks was a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

But his reputation was also tarnished by rape allegations, which he has denied and the Swedish authorities eventually dropped because so much time had elapsed.

The US Justice Department’s indictment unsealed in 2019 accused Assange of encouraging and helping US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks published in 2010. 

Prosecutors had accused Assange of damaging national security by publishing documents that harmed the US and its allies and aided its adversaries.

The case was lambasted by press advocates and Assange supporters. Federal prosecutors defended it as targeting conduct that went way beyond that of a journalist gathering information, amounting to an attempt to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified government documents.

Shipton said his brother was looking forward to the “simple pleasures that Julian has been denied for the last 13 years”: visiting favourite spots in Melbourne, hearing birds in the bush, swimming in the ocean.

Assange’s mother, Christine, said she was grateful his “ordeal is finally coming to an end”.

“This shows the importance and power of quiet diplomacy,” she said.

“Many have used my son’s situation to push their own agendas, 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.”

Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 and was granted political asylum after courts in England ruled he should be extradited to Sweden as part of a rape investigation in the Scandinavian country. 

He was arrested by British police after Ecuador’s government withdrew his asylum status in 2019 and then jailed for skipping bail when he first took shelter inside the embassy.

– Reported with Daniel Jeffrey and Associated Press.

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