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Julian Assange’s release from a UK prison and return to Australia is welcomed news, following a plea deal with the US authorities. The US’ relentless prosecution of Assange has done untold damage to media freedom, highlighting the need to continue fighting for freedom of expression everywhere, Amnesty International said today.

“After years of Julian Assange’s life being wrongly stolen by the US and UK authorities, Amnesty International welcomes the positive news that he is now free and can be reunited with his family. Had he been extradited to the US, he would have been at risk of human rights violations, including prolonged solitary confinement in contravention of the prohibition of torture or other ill-treatment, and poor health services,” said Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Agnès Callamard.

“We have stated for years that the charges against Assange should have never been brought against him in the first place, that he certainly should have never been in prison, and that the UK should have never certified the extradition request.”

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange walked free on Wednesday from a court in the US Pacific island territory of Saipan, after pleading guilty to violating US espionage law stemming from WikiLeaks’ release in 2010 of classified US military documents including from the wars it waged in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Assange was wanted for activities that are fundamental to all journalists and publishers, who often receive sensitive government information from outside sources. The public has a right to know when a government is wrongdoing in its name.  The US authorities have failed to conduct a full and transparent investigation into the alleged war crimes that Wikileaks brought to light. Instead, they chose to target and make an example of Assange for publishing information in the public interest that was leaked to him by sources,” Agnès Callamard said.

“It is understandable that after Assange’s lengthy legal battle for freedom, he has decided to end his own persecution by pleading guilty to one charge. Assange’s mental and physical well-being have been at risk for a very long time.

The US government cannot claim to champion media freedom after its years’ long campaign of relentless pursuit of Assange. They sent a clear message across the US and abroad: publishers and journalists could end up behind bars on espionage charges for years if they use classified material to expose human rights violations.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General

“The US government cannot claim to champion media freedom after its years’ long campaign of relentless pursuit of Assange. They sent a clear message across the US and abroad: publishers and journalists could end up behind bars on espionage charges for years if they use classified material to expose human rights violations. The fight for global media freedom continues. Work must be done to uphold freedom of expression and to unwind the impact of the ‘chilling effect’ that Assange’s treatment has had on media freedom worldwide.”

Amnesty International said the Australian authorities, who have rightly stood by Assange, must ensure that he has access to relevant rehabilitation services when he returns home.

“Amnesty International pays tribute to the work of Julian Assange’s family, lawyers, many within the media community, and the thousands of campaigners and activists who have stood by him and the fundamental principles that underpin the right to freedom of expression and people’s right to access information in the public interest,” said Agnès Callamard.

Background on the plea deal

Julian Assange has reached a plea deal with the US authorities after spending five years in a high security prison in the UK. Assange pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information, leading to a sentence of 62 months, all of which Julian Assange has already served. 

In her sentencing remarks Judge Manglona noted that “There’s another significant fact – the government has indicated there is no personal victim here. That tells me the dissemination of this information did not result in any known physical injury.”

Amnesty International has previously warned about a ‘chilling effect’ on global press freedom, and has campaigned for the US to drop all charges and for the UK to release Julian Assange from state custody.

Header image: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange waves after arriving at Canberra Airport in Canberra on June 26, 2024. Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images.