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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will plead guilty in deal with US that will allow him to walk free

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will plead guilty in deal with US that will allow him to walk free
News

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will plead guilty in deal with US that will allow him to walk free

2024-06-25 09:48 Last Updated At:09:50

WASHINGTON (AP) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will allow him to walk free and resolve a long-running legal saga that spanned multiple continents and centered on the publication of a trove of classified documents.

Assange left a British prison on Monday and will appear later this week in the U.S. federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Western Pacific. He's expected to plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defense information, the Justice Department said in a letter filed in court.

The guilty plea, which must be approved by a judge, brings an abrupt conclusion to a criminal case of international intrigue and to the U.S. government’s years-long pursuit of a publisher whose hugely popular secret-sharing website made him a cause célèbre among many press freedom advocates who said he acted as a journalist to expose U.S. 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.

He is expected to return to his home country of Australia after his plea and sentencing, which is scheduled for Wednesday morning, local time in Saipan, the largest island in the Northern Mariana Islands. The hearing is taking place there because of Assange’s opposition to traveling to the continental U.S. and the court’s proximity to Australia, prosecutors said.

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

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.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. security clearance, and did not have authorization 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 U.S. 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 U.S.

FILE - Julian Assange speaks to the media outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, May 19, 2017. Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will free him from prison and resolve a long-running legal saga over the publication of a trove of classified documents. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File)

FILE - Julian Assange speaks to the media outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, May 19, 2017. Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will free him from prison and resolve a long-running legal saga over the publication of a trove of classified documents. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File)

FILE - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrivies at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court in London, Feb. 7, 2011. Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will free him from prison and resolve a long-running legal saga over the publication of a trove of classified documents. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, files)

FILE - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrivies at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court in London, Feb. 7, 2011. Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will free him from prison and resolve a long-running legal saga over the publication of a trove of classified documents. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, files)

FILE - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, Feb. 5, 2016. Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will free him from prison and resolve a long-running legal saga over the publication of a trove of classified documents. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

FILE - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, Feb. 5, 2016. Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will free him from prison and resolve a long-running legal saga over the publication of a trove of classified documents. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

The Republican National Convention culminates Thursday with former President Donald Trump expected to accept the party’s presidential nomination, achieving a comeback four years in the making and anticipated even more in the past week in light of Saturday’s assassination attempt.

He is expected to accept his third consecutive party nod in prime time before thousands of supporters at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. Trump's running mate JD Vance addressed the same crowd on Wednesday.

Trump’s election opponent, President Joe Biden, tested positive for COVID-19 while traveling Wednesday in Las Vegas and is experiencing “mild symptoms” including “general malaise” from the infection, the White House said.

Follow the AP’s Election-2024 coverage at: https://apnews.com/hub/election-2024

Here's the Latest:

The Republican National Convention culminates Thursday with former President Donald Trump expected to accept the party’s presidential nomination, achieving a comeback four years in the making and anticipated even more in the past week in light of Saturday’s assassination attempt.

Trump is expected to accept his third consecutive party nod in prime time before thousands of supporters at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.

How he approaches the speech in light of his injury at a rally in Butler, Pennsylvania, will be closely watched.

▶ Here’s what to know about Trump’s speech and the final day of the convention

Hundreds of people who gathered to remember the former fire chief fatally shot at a weekend rally for former President Donald Trump were urged to find “unity” as the area in rural Pennsylvania sought to recover from the assassination attempt.

Wednesday’s public event was the first of two organized to memorialize and celebrate Corey Comperatore’s life. The second, a visitation for friends, was planned for Thursday at Laube Hall in Freeport.

Outside Lernerville Speedway in Sarver, where the vigil was held for Comperatore, a sign read: “Rest in Peace Corey, Thank You For Your Service,” with the logo of his fire company.

On the rural road to the auto racing track — lined with cornfields, churches and industrial plants — a sign outside a local credit union read: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Comperatore family.”

▶ Read more about the vigil for Corey Comperatore

A former president is shot, the gunman quickly neutralized, and all of it is caught on camera. But for those who don’t believe their eyes, that’s just the start of the story.

For some supporters of former President Donald Trump, the failure of the Secret Service to prevent the attempted assassination points to a conspiracy orchestrated by President Joe Biden. For some of Trump’s critics, however, the details of the shooting don’t add up. They wonder if Trump somehow staged the whole thing.

Two dueling conspiracy theories are taking root online following Trump’s attempted assassination, one for each end of America’s polarized political spectrum. In this split-screen republic, Americans are increasingly choosing their own reality, at the expense of a shared understanding of the facts.

“One screen, two movies,” is how Ron Bassilian describes the online reaction to Saturday’s shooting. Bassilian is a prolific user of social media and has used X to broadcast his conjecture about the shooting. “People have their beliefs, and they’re going to come up with theories that fit their beliefs.”

▶ Read more about the conspiracy theories surrounding the Trump shooting

Relatives of some of the 13 American service members killed during the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan appeared on stage at the Republican National Convention Wednesday in an emotional moment that revived one of the low points of President Joe Biden’s presidency.

Many of the Gold Star families have criticized Biden for never publicly naming their loved ones. On stage Wednesday, one of the family members named each of the 13 service members, and the crowd echoed back each name as it was read aloud.

“Joe Biden has refused to recognize their sacrifice,” Christy Shamblin, the mother-in-law of Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee, told the crowd. “Donald Trump knew all of our children’s names. He knew all of their stories.”

The crowd chanted “Never forget!” and “U.S.A.!” as Trump and the entire convention hall stood.

▶ Read more about the Gold Star families featured at the RNC

JD Vance introduced himself to a national audience Wednesday after being chosen as Donald Trump’s running mate, sharing the story of his hardscrabble upbringing and making the case that his party best understands the challenges facing struggling Americans.

Speaking to a packed arena at the Republican National Convention, the Ohio senator cast himself as a fighter for a forgotten working class, making a direct appeal to the Rust Belt voters who helped drive Trump’s surprise 2016 victory and voicing their anger and frustration.

The 39-year-old Ohio senator is a relative political unknown, having served in the Senate for less than two years. He rapidly morphed in recent years from a bitter critic of the former president to an aggressive defender and is now positioned to become the future leader of the party and the torch-bearer of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” political movement.

The first millennial to join the top of a major party ticket, Vance enters the race as questions about the age of the men at the top — 78-year-old Trump and 81-year-old President Joe Biden — have been high on the list of voters’ concerns. He also joins Trump after an assassination attempt against the former president — in which Trump came perhaps millimeters from death or serious injury — underscoring the importance of a potential successor.

▶ Read more about Vance’s RNC speech

The third nights of conventions are traditionally about the running mate and how they round out a presidential ticket. Certainly, Vance has become a presence at the convention — mentions from the podium, his name now on signs together with Trump, appearances with the former president on the first two nights of the convention.

But Trump is a dominant figure — even when measured against other U.S. presidents and world leaders. Pick any speaker Wednesday and their most passionate pitches were not about “Donald Trump and JD Vance.” They were about Trump.

“This is a man I know and the president we need for four more years,” said Kellyanne Conway, a former Trump adviser. “He will always stand up for you.”

Trump’s former White House physician, Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas, called Trump “the greatest president this country has ever had” and “a president who even took a bullet for our country.”

It’s Trump’s party and his alone. No running mate can change that, especially not a freshman senator who has yet to celebrate his 40th birthday.

▶ Read the AP’s takeaways from night 3 of the RNC.

The convention is gaveling out after a benediction from Rev. Packy Thompson of Houma, Lousiana.

Thompson thanked God for Trump. “I also thank you for protecting him from the evil that was perpetrated last Saturday,” he said.

And the gathering is adjourned until Thursday.

“Tonight, J.D. Vance, the poster boy for Project 2025, took center stage. But it’s working families and the middle class who will suffer if he’s allowed to stay there,” Michael Tyler, Biden campaign communication director, said.

“Backed by Silicon Valley and the billionaires who bought his vice presidential selection, Vance is Project 2025 in human form – an agenda that puts extremism and the ultra wealthy over our democracy.”

Vance made a pledge to voters: “I pledge to every American, no matter your party, I will give you everything I have.”

He added, “To serve you and to make this country a place where every dream you have for yourself, your family and your country will be possible once again.”

After the speech, Vance’s extended family flooded the stage to an unusual song for a Republican convention – Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.”

The song became a political staple in 1992 when a very different young politician from a humble background ran for national office. That was Bill Clinton, who is, of course, a Democrat.

Law enforcement officers gather at campaign rally site for Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is empty Saturday, July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pa. Trump's campaign said in a statement that the former president was "fine" after a shooting at his rally in Butler (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Law enforcement officers gather at campaign rally site for Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is empty Saturday, July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pa. Trump's campaign said in a statement that the former president was "fine" after a shooting at his rally in Butler (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is covered by U.S. Secret Service agents at a campaign rally, Saturday, July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is covered by U.S. Secret Service agents at a campaign rally, Saturday, July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is surround by U.S. Secret Service agents at a campaign rally, Saturday, July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is surround by U.S. Secret Service agents at a campaign rally, Saturday, July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is helped off the stage at a campaign event in Butler, Pa., Saturday, July 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is helped off the stage at a campaign event in Butler, Pa., Saturday, July 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump pumps his fist as he is helped off the stage at a campaign event in Butler, Pa., on Saturday, July 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump pumps his fist as he is helped off the stage at a campaign event in Butler, Pa., on Saturday, July 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Wisconsin Carlos Jimenez dresses up as Captain America at the Republican National Convention Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Wisconsin Carlos Jimenez dresses up as Captain America at the Republican National Convention Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Republican vice presidential candidate Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, speaks during the Republican National Convention Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Republican vice presidential candidate Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, speaks during the Republican National Convention Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump's shadow is seen as he departs the Republican National Convention Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump's shadow is seen as he departs the Republican National Convention Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Vice Presidential Nominee Sen. JD Vance speaks during the Republican National Convention Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Vice Presidential Nominee Sen. JD Vance speaks during the Republican National Convention Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump departs after the third day of the Republican National Convention at the Fiserv Forum, Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump departs after the third day of the Republican National Convention at the Fiserv Forum, Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A general view during rehearsals at the 2024 Republican National Convention at the Fiserv Forum, Sunday, July 14, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

A general view during rehearsals at the 2024 Republican National Convention at the Fiserv Forum, Sunday, July 14, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Republican vice presidential candidate Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, gestures to the crowd after speaking at the 2024 Republican National Convention at the Fiserv Forum, Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Republican vice presidential candidate Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, gestures to the crowd after speaking at the 2024 Republican National Convention at the Fiserv Forum, Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Republican vice presidential candidate Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, speaks at the 2024 Republican National Convention at the Fiserv Forum, Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Republican vice presidential candidate Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, speaks at the 2024 Republican National Convention at the Fiserv Forum, Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Vice Presidential Nominee Sen. JD Vance and wife Usha Chilukuri Vance acknowledge the crowd during the Republican National Convention Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Vice Presidential Nominee Sen. JD Vance and wife Usha Chilukuri Vance acknowledge the crowd during the Republican National Convention Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

President Joe Biden and Maritza Rodriguez, Biden for President Latina adviser, greets patrons at Linda Michoacan Mexican Restaurant, during a stop in Las Vegas, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Joe Biden and Maritza Rodriguez, Biden for President Latina adviser, greets patrons at Linda Michoacan Mexican Restaurant, during a stop in Las Vegas, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Joe Biden walks up the steps of Air Force One at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. Biden has tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a speaker at the UnidosUS annual conference broadcast on the White House's YouTube channel. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Joe Biden walks up the steps of Air Force One at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. Biden has tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a speaker at the UnidosUS annual conference broadcast on the White House's YouTube channel. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump reacts during the Republican National Convention Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump reacts during the Republican National Convention Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump talks to Sen. Marco Rubio during the Republican National Convention Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump talks to Sen. Marco Rubio during the Republican National Convention Wednesday, July 17, 2024, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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