WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange walks to board a plane at a location given as London in this still image from video released on June 25, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

SYDNEY: Behind closed doors, an Australia-US-UK diplomatic dance opened the way for a plea deal to free WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, analysts and a diplomat previously involved in the case told AFP.

The 52-year-old Australian citizen walked out of his five-year visit to London’s high-security Belmarsh prison on Monday after agreeing to plead guilty to a single count of revealing US national defence secrets.

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Assange’s release had been under discussion “for a little while now”, said Jared Mondschein, director of research at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre.

“It’s been a few months in the making,” he told AFP on Tuesday.

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US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy - late president John F. Kennedy’s daughter - “has been talking about this in the last few months,” Mondschein said.

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Assange looking out of the window as his plane from London approaches Bangkok for a layover at Don Mueang International Airport in the Thai capital. Image Credit: AFP

“She was flagging there is a way to resolve this.”

Under the plea agreement, Assange is flying from London to Saipan, capital of the Pacific US territory of Northern Mariana Islands, for a Wednesday morning court appearance.

He is expected to be sentenced to five years and two months in prison, with credit for the same amount of time spent behind bars in Britain - allowing him to return to his native Australia.

The United States did not want to drop the charges, Mondschein said.

Stella Assange outside London prison. Image Credit: Reuters
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.
The trove of more than 700,000 documents included 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 as the publisher of Wikileaks he 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 is a threat to free speech and journalism.
Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of Britain’s Guardian newspaper, one of the global titles which worked with WikiLeaks to publish some of the leaked material, said it was “pretty disturbing” that espionage laws were being used to target those who revealed uncomfortable information for states.
Stella Assange said the US government should have dropped the case against her husband altogether.
“We will be seeking a pardon, obviously, but 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,” she said.
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 and Stella, a lawyer who worked on his case, had two children during his time there. He was dragged out of the embassy in 2019 after Ecuador withdrew his asylum status.
He was jailed for skipping bail and has been in Belmarsh ever since, latterly fighting extradition to the United States.
“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 Shipton told Reuters from France.

‘Winds were shifting’

“They wanted him to plead guilty and they had to figure out how to do that without being in the United States,” he added.

“With that all said, it is not a fully done deal. It appears they have come to a plea deal but if there is anything we have learned in this long saga now, we should not make assumptions and see where we land in 24 to 48 hours.”

The tide shifted strongly in Assange’s favour after Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was elected in May 2022 and made his release a priority, said a diplomat who did not want to be named so that they could speak freely.

Assange and his family had been advised previously that he should plead guilty and strike a deal because it would be difficult for the United States to drop the charges, said the diplomat, who worked on the case several years ago.

“The political winds were shifting and that also played a role in convincing people in the US that this had to be dealt with more urgently than it would have otherwise,” the diplomat told AFP.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has repeatedly called for an end to Assange’s legal ordeal, saying: “Enough is enough”.

The country’s parliament even passed a motion this year with the prime minister’s support, calling for Assange to be allowed to return to his family.

The government had been working “behind the scenes diplomatically” with the US administration to advocate for his release, said Emma Shortis, senior researcher in international and security affairs at The Australia Institute thinktank.

‘Clear threat’

“I think part of the reason this has happened today is because it was becoming a significant issue for the relationship,” Shortis told AFP, notably since London, Washington and Canberra agreed on a nuclear-powered submarine pact, AUKUS.

“To be told fairly consistently that Australia’s relationship with the United States is based on shared democratic values served the argument that the AUKUS submarine deal is critical to that relationship,” Shortis said.

“And then to have the Assange case alongside that, with its clear threat to international free speech rights, was just really irreconcilable.”

Johan Lidberg, head of journalism at Monash University, noted that US President Joe Biden had let slip in April that his administration was “considering” an Australian request to drop the Assange prosecution.

“I think the momentum just built to a point where both sides - both Australia and the US, partly with the aid of the intermediary of the UK - were trying to find a way out of it,” Lidberg said.

All sides were seeking to back out of “this stalemate that wasn’t really going anywhere - and no one was really benefiting from it.”