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Julien Assange Free at Last

Issue 288

Wikileaks publisher confined for more than a decade after he exposed U.S. war crimes

Renée Feltz Jul 1

Cries of “welcome home” greeted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as he disembarked from a chartered jet in the Australian capitol of Canberra a free man after he plead guilty to a single U.S. espionage charge and was sentenced to time served.

The shocking scene on June 26 ended a 12-year-long legal ordeal that began when Assange published classified documents detailing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, including video footage from 2007 showing a U.S. military Apache helicopter in Baghdad killing 12 civilians, including two Reuters journalists, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen. WikiLeaks titled the video “Collateral Murder”.

After Chmagh survived the initial attack, the video shows him trying to crawl away while the helicopter flies overhead. U.S. forces open fire again when they notice a van pulling up to evacuate the wounded Chmagh. Soldier’s chatter and laugh at the carnage in their crosshairs.

“We have individuals going to the scene, looks like possibly picking up bodies and weapons,” says one soldier. “Let me engage. Can I shoot?,” another asks. They get permission, and fire.

“Should have a van in the middle of the road with about 12 to 15 bodies,” a soldier concludes.  “Oh yeah, look at that. Right through the windshield! Ha ha!” His colleague responds.

When Assange landed in Australia he kissed his wife Stella and lifted her off the ground, then embraced his father while his legal team looked on. He did not address the media.

“Julian wanted me to sincerely thank everyone,” Stella Assange told reporters. “He wanted to be here, but you have to understand what he’s been through. He needs time. He needs to recuperate.” 

Assange spent the past five years locked up in the harsh Belmarsh Prison in London, and faced up to 175 years in U.S. prison if he was extradited and convicted on all 18 counts he was facing. Before that, he had spent seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was given political asylum.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s increasing use of the Espionage Act to prosecute and silence whistleblowers still casts a shadow over national security journalists whose work includes what Assange was accused of doing: “obtaining and disseminating classified information.”

For more than a decade, press freedom groups were part of a grassroots campaign to demand successive U.S. administrations free Assange, who also published the Afghan War Logs on WikiLeaks in 2010 and shared them with The Guardian, The New York Times and the German weekly Der Spiegel. The Biden administration appears to have pushed through the final steps of the plea deal  as he struggles to mollify anti-war voters ahead of the November election. 

“It’s important to recognize that Julian’s release and the breakthrough in the negotiations came at a time where there had been a breakthrough in the legal case in the U.K., in the extradition, where the High Court had allowed permission to appeal,” Stella Assange noted. “There was a court date set for the 9th and 10th of July, an upcoming court date in which Julian would be able to raise the First Amendment argument at the High Court. And it is in this context that things finally started to move. I think it revealed how uncomfortable the United States government is, in fact, of having these arguments aired, because this case — the fact is that this case is an attack on journalism, it’s an attack on the public’s right to know, and it should never have been brought. Julian should never have spent a single day in prison.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s increasing use of the Espionage Act to prosecute and silence whistleblowers still casts a shadow over national security journalists whose work includes what Assange was accused of doing: “obtaining and disseminating classified information.”

“This deal contemplates that Assange will have served five years in prison for activities that journalists engage in every day,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

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