WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange stops in Bangkok on his way to a US court and later freedom

A plane believed to be carrying WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has landed in Bangkok on Tuesday, as he is on the way to enter a plea deal with the US government that will free him and resolve the legal case that spanned years and continents over the publication of a trove of classified documents.
Julian Assange
Julian Assange

Bangkok | A plane believed to be carrying WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has landed in Bangkok on Tuesday, as he is on the way to enter a plea deal with the US government that will free him and resolve the legal case that spanned years and continents over the publication of a trove of classified documents.

The chartered plane VJT199 landed after noon at Don Mueang International Airport, north of the Thai capital. It is unclear if the plane is only refuelling or how Assange will continue travelling to the Northern Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth in the Western Pacific, where he will appear in court Wednesday morning Saipan time.

He's expected to plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defense information, according to the US Justice Department in a letter filed in court.

Assange is expected to return to his home country of Australia after his plea and sentencing. The hearing is taking place in Saipan, the largest island in the Northern Marianas, because of Assange's opposition to travelling to the continental US and the court's proximity to Australia, prosecutors said.

The guilty plea, which must be approved by a judge, brings an abrupt conclusion to a criminal case of international intrigue and to the US government's years-long pursuit of a publisher whose hugely popular secret-sharing website made him a cause celebre among many press freedom advocates who said he acted as a journalist to expose US military wrongdoing. Investigators, by contrast, have repeatedly asserted that his actions broke laws meant to protect sensitive information and put the country's national security at risk.

Attorneys for Assange didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement posted on X, WikiLeaks said Assange boarded a plane and departed the United Kingdom on Monday after leaving the British prison, where he has spent the last five years.

WikiLeaks applauded the announcement of the deal, saying it was grateful for “all who stood by us, fought for us, and remained utterly committed in the fight for his freedom.” “WikiLeaks published groundbreaking 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,” WikiLeaks said.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has been lobbying for the United States to end its prosecution of Assange, told Parliament that an Australian envoy had flown with Assange from London. “Regardless of the views that people have about Mr Assange's activities, the case has dragged on for too long. There's nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia,” Albanese added.

The deal ensures that Assange will admit guilt while also sparing him from any additional prison time. He had spent years hiding out in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after Swedish authorities sought his arrest on rape allegations before being locked up in the United Kingdom.

Assange is expected to be sentenced to the five years he has already spent in the high-security British prison while fighting to avoid extradition to the US to face charges, a process that has 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 an American citizen if extradited from Britain.

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.

The 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.

Prosecutors said in a charging document filed in connection with the plea agreement that Assange conspired with Manning to receive and obtain documents, notes and other writings related to the national defense and to “willfully communicate” those records.

The document takes care to note that Assange was “not a United States citizen, did not possess a US security clearance, and did not have authorisation to possess, access, or control documents, writings, or notes relating to the national defense of the United States, including classified information.” 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. It was brought even though the Obama administration Justice Department had passed on prosecuting him years earlier.

The plea agreement comes months after President Joe Biden said he was considering a request from Australia to drop the US push to prosecute Assange. The White House was not involved in the decision to resolve Assange's 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.

Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act and other offenses for leaking classified government and military documents to WikiLeaks. President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017, allowing her release after about seven years behind bars.

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

Justice Department officials mulled charges for Assange following the documents' 2010 publication, but were unsure a case would hold up in court and were concerned it could be hard to justify prosecuting him for acts similar to those of a conventional journalist.

The posture changed in the Trump administration, however, with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 calling Assange's arrest a priority.

Assange's family and supporters have said his physical and mental health have suffered during more than a decade of legal battles, which includes seven years spent inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

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.

Although Sweden eventually dropped its sex crimes investigation because so much time had elapsed, Assange has remained in London's high-security Belmarsh Prison during the extradition battle with the US.

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