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Julian Assange: Plane carrying WikiLeaks founder in Bangkok ahead of plea deal

BANGKOK (AP) — A plane carrying Julian Assange landed in Bangkok on Tuesday to refuel, as the WikiLeaks founder headed to sign a plea deal with the U.S. government that will free him and resolve the legal case that spanned years and continents over the publication of a trove of classified documents.

A chartered flight from London that Assange’s wife, Stella, confirmed was carrying her husband, landed at Don Mueang International Airport. Officials there told The Associated Press that the plane was scheduled to continue to Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. community in the Pacific, where Assange is expected to appear in court on Wednesday.

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Protesters hold banners in support of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange outside the High Court in London, Monday, May 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

He is expected to plead guilty to one count under the Espionage Act of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defense information, according to the U.S. Department of Justice in a letter filed in court.

Assange is expected to return to his home country, Australia, after his plea and sentencing. The hearing will be held in Saipan because of Assange’s opposition to traveling to the continental United States and the court’s proximity to Australia, prosecutors said.

The guilty plea, which must be approved by a judge, abruptly ends a criminal case of international intrigue and the US government’s years-long pursuit of a publisher whose popular secret-sharing website made him a crime. famous among many defenders of press freedom. he who said that he acted as a journalist to expose US military irregularities. Investigators, on the other hand, have repeatedly asserted that his actions violated laws meant to protect confidential information and put the country’s national security at risk.

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Stella Assange told the BBC from Australia that for the past 72 hours she had been in doubt about whether the deal would go ahead, but that she felt “elated” at the news. A lawyer who married the WikiLeaks founder in prison in 2022 said details of the agreement would be made public once the judge approved it.

“He will be a free man once a judge approves it,” he said, adding that he still didn’t believe it was real.

He told Britain’s PA news agency that the flight was costing Assange $500,000 and that they would start a fundraising campaign to help pay for it.

Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, said the deal for Assange came after growing involvement from Australians. Prime Minister Antonio Albanese.

“This is the result of a very, very long process that has been going on for some time now. It has been a tough battle but now the focus is on Julian being reunited with his family,” Hrafnsson told the PA news agency. “The most important thing is that Julián is free and he will finally be able to enjoy the big blue sky.”

In a statement posted on the social media platform WikiLeaks applauded the announcement of the agreement and said it was grateful for “everyone who supported us, fought for us and remained fully committed to the fight for their freedom.”

Albanese told Parliament that an Australian envoy had flown with Assange from London.

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Buildings are reflected in the window as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is led out of court, where he appeared charged, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, with jumping British bail seven years ago, in London. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

“Regardless of what opinions people have about Mr. Assange’s activities, the case has dragged on too long,” Albanese said. “There is nothing to be gained from his continued imprisonment and we want him brought home to Australia.”

The agreement guarantees that Assange will admit his guilt and at the same time avoid an additional prison sentence. He got I spent years hiding. at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after Swedish authorities requested his arrest over rape allegations before being locked up in the UK.

Assange is expected to be sentenced to the five years he already spent in a British prison while fighting extradition to the United States to face charges, a process that played out in a series of hearings in London. Last month he won the right to appeal an extradition order after his lawyers argued that the US government provided “blatantly inadequate” assurances that he would have the same free speech protections as a US citizen if extradited from Britain.

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

But his reputation was also tarnished by rape allegations, which he has denied.

The Justice Department indictment unsealed in 2019 accused Assange of encouraging and aiding Chelsea Manning, US military intelligence analyst steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks published in 2010. Prosecutors had accused Assange of harming national security by publishing documents that harmed the United States and its allies and helped its adversaries.

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

Plea deal comes months later president joe biden said it was considering a request from Australia to abandon the US attempt to prosecute Assange. The White House was not involved in the decision to resolve the Assange case, according to a White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Assange made headlines again in 2016 after his website published Democratic emails that prosecutors say were stolen by Russian intelligence agents. He was never charged in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, but the probe laid bare in vivid detail the role the hacking operation played in interfering in that year’s election on behalf of then-Republican candidate Donald Trump. .

During the Obama administration, Justice Department officials considered bringing charges against Assange, but were unsure whether the case would proceed in court and worried that it might be difficult to justify prosecuting him for acts similar to those of a mainstream journalist. .

However, the stance changed in the Trump administration, and in 2017 former Attorney General Jeff Sessions called Assange’s arrest a priority.

Assange’s family and supporters have said his physical and mental health has been affected during More than a decade of legal battles..

Assange took refuge in Embassy of Ecuador in London in 2012 and was granted political asylum after courts in England ruled that he should be extradited to Sweden as part of a rape investigation in the Scandinavian country. He was arrested by British police after the Ecuadorian government withdrew his asylum status in 2019 and then jailed for jumping bail when he first took refuge inside the embassy.

Although Sweden eventually dropped its sex crimes investigation because too much time had passed, Assange remained in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison during the extradition battle with the United States.

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Tucker reported from Fort Pierce, Florida, and Durkin Richer from Washington. Associated Press writers Colleen Long in Washington, Napat Kongsawad and David Rising in Bangkok, Jill Lawless and Brian Melley in London and Rod McGuirk in Melbourne, Australia, contributed to this report.

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