Julian Assange Returns to Australia After Plea Deal with US

Assange airplane

A plane carrying Julian Assange has landed in Bangkok for refueling, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific, where the WikiLeaks founder will disembark on Wednesday following a plea deal with American prosecutors.

Assange is pleading guilty to a felony for conspiring to obtain and disclose national defense information. In exchange for his plea, Assange will be allowed to return to his home country of Australia without serving any additional prison time.

“Julian Assange is free,” WikiLeaks said in a statement. The publisher added that he “paid severely” for exposing “government corruption and human rights abuses.” 

Assange had been wanted by U.S. authorities since 2010 after WikiLeaks published one of the biggest leaks of classified U.S. government documents and videos in history. The leaks were related to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2012, he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after the U.K. government ordered him to be extradited to Sweden for separate sexual assault charges he was facing there. Assange’s lawyers had sought assurances that Sweden would not extradite him to the U.S., citing concerns he could face the death penalty and would not have free speech protections as a U.S. citizen.

In 2015, the Swedish government dropped its sexual assault case, saying that the statue of limitation had passed. Nonetheless, the U.S. charges remained in place and Assange continued to stay in the Ecuadorian embassy until 2019, when the Ecuadorian government revoked his asylum. He was subsequently arrested by British authorities and was kept in a British prison until 2024, when the plea deal with the U.S. government was reached.

Supporters of Assange say that the footage and cables WikiLeaks released with the help of former U.S. army soldier Chelsea Manning revealed possible war crimes by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that publishing them was an act of public service.

“He never should have spent a single day deprived of his liberty for publishing information in the public interest,” Rebecca Vincent, director of campaigns for Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement. “Nothing can undo the past 13 years, but it is never too late to do the right thing, and we welcome this move by the U.S. government,” she added.

Assange’s detractors, however, say that the leaks jeopardized U.S. national security. “Julian Assange endangered the lives of our troops in a time of war and should have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” former Vice President Mike Pence said.

Australian leaders have cautiously welcomed the U.S. plea deal. “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,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told Parliament.

In 2017, Manning’s 35-year sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama. She had been charged and convicted of espionage in 2013.