Stella Assange says she will seek a pardon for husband Julian

Stella Assange, the wife of WikiLeaks founder Julian, told Reuters they would seek a pardon after he pleaded guilty to violating US espionage law, saying the prosecution was a “very serious concern” for journalists around the world.

“The fact that there is a guilty plea, under the Espionage Act in relation to obtaining and disclosing National Defence information is obviously a very serious concern for journalists and national security journalists in general,” she said.

Assange, 52, has agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified US national defence documents, according to filings in the US District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

The deal marks the end of a legal saga which has seen Assange spend more than five years in a British high-security jail and seven holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London as he fought accusations of sex crimes in Sweden and battled extradition to the US, where he faced 18 criminal charges.

It will also allow his return home to Australia.

The US government viewed him as a reckless villain who had endangered the lives of agents through WikiLeaks’ mass release of secret US documents – the largest security breaches of their kind in US military history.

But to free press advocates and his supporters, which included world leaders, celebrities and some prominent journalists, he was a hero for exposing wrongdoing and alleged war crimes, and was persecuted for embarrassing the US authorities.

On Wednesday, Assange is due to be sentenced to 62 months of time already served at a hearing in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, at 9 am local time. The US territory in the Pacific was chosen due to Assange’s opposition to travelling to the mainland US and for its proximity to Australia, prosecutors said.

Australian-born Assange left Belmarsh maximum security jail on Monday before being bailed by the London High Court and later boarding a flight that afternoon, Wikileaks said in a statement posted on social media platform X.

“I’m just elated,” his wife, Stella Assange, told BBC radio, speaking from Australia. “He will be a free man once (the deal) has been signed off by the judge and that will happen sometime tomorrow.”

A video posted on X by Wikileaks showed Assange dressed in a blue shirt and jeans signing a document before boarding a private jet with the markings of charter firm VistaJet.

The only VistaJet plane that left Stansted on Monday afternoon landed in Bangkok on Tuesday afternoon, en-route to Saipan, according to FlightRadar24 data.

Assange will return to Australia after the hearing, the Wikileaks statement said. A spokesperson for Assange in Australia declined to comment on his flight plans. VistaJet did not respond to a request for comment.

“Julian’s family are over the moon that he is free, there is a little bit of a way to go until he is safe and sound, back on Australian soil, but I think everybody is working on this,” his brother Gabriel Shipton told Reuters from France.

‘Too long’

The Australian government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, has been pressing US President Joe Biden for Assange’s release but declined to comment on the legal proceedings as they were ongoing.

“Regardless of the views that people have about Mr Assange (and) his activities, the case has dragged on for too long,” Albanese said in the country’s parliament.

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

A lawyer for Assange did not respond to a request for comment.

WikiLeaks came to prominence in 2010 after it released hundreds of thousands of classified US military documents on Washington’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq along with swaths of diplomatic cables.

Assange was indicted during former President Donald Trump’s administration over the release of the documents, which were leaked by Chelsea Manning, a former US military intelligence analyst who was also prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but President Barack Obama reduced the term to seven, saying her sentence was disproportionate to those received by other leakers.

The trove of more than 700,000 documents included diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts such as a 2007 video of a US Apache helicopter firing at suspected insurgents in Iraq, killing a dozen people including two Reuters news staff. That video was released in 2010.

The charges against Assange sparked outrage among his many global supporters who have long argued that Assange as the publisher of Wikileaks should not face charges typically used against federal government employees who steal or leak information.

Many press freedom advocates have argued that criminally charging Assange represents a threat to free speech and journalism.

“It will cast a long shadow over the most important kinds of journalism, not just in this country (US) but around the world,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute.

Swedish allegations

Assange was first arrested in Britain in 2010 on a European arrest warrant after Swedish authorities said they wanted to question him over sex-crime allegations that were later dropped.

He fled to Ecuador’s embassy, where he remained for seven years, to avoid extradition to Sweden.

He was dragged out of the embassy in 2019, jailed for skipping bail and has been in Belmarsh ever since, latterly fighting extradition to the United States.

Those five years of confinement are similar to the sentence imposed on Reality Winner, an Air Force veteran and former intelligence contractor, who was sentenced to 63 months after she removed classified materials and mailed them to a news outlet.

“Millions of people who have been advocating for Julian, it is almost time for them to have a drink and a celebration,” his brother Gabriel said.

– Reuters

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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