Australian leaders cautiously welcome expected plea that could bring WikiLeaks founder Assange home

Australian leaders are cautiously welcoming an expected plea agreement that could set free WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Australian leaders cautiously welcomed an expected plea agreement that could set free Julian Assange, who was pursued for years over WikiLeaks' publication of a trove of classified documents.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Tuesday there was nothing to be gained by keeping the Australian incarcerated.

A plane with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange departed Bangkok after refueling Tuesday and he is on the way to Saipan to enter a plea deal with the U.S. government that will free him and resolve the legal case over the publication of a trove of classified documents.

He is expected to plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defense information, the U.S. Justice Department said in a letter filed in court.

Assange is expected to return to Australia if a judge accepts the plea agreement.

Public support for Assange has grown in Australia during the seven years he has spent avoiding extradition to the United States by hiding in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London and later during his five years in Belmarsh Prison.

Albanese has been lobbying since his government was elected in 2022 for the United States to end its prosecution of Assange, and his plight was seen as a test of the prime minister's leverage with President Joe Biden.

Albanese had been a senior minister in a center-left Labor Party government that in 2010 staunchly backed U.S. criticisms of WikiLeaks' classified information dumps. But Assange has breached no Australian law.

Albanese told Parliament that Australian High Commissioner to the U.K. Stephen Smith had flown with Assange from London.

“The government is certainly aware that Australian citizen Mr. Julian Assange has legal proceedings scheduled in the United States. While this is a welcome development, we recognize that these proceedings are crucial and they’re delicate,” Albanese told Parliament.

“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,” Albanese added.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong acknowledged the advocacy of a range of lawmakers on Assange’s behalf, including delegates of the Bring Julian Assange Parliamentary Group who traveled to Washington last year with a letter signed by 60 Australian lawmakers calling for the prosecution to end.

Wong said Albanese had led the Australian effort, personally raising Assange with Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

“We want to see Mr. Assange reunited with his family in Australia,” Wong told the Senate.

Wong also revealed that Assange has rejected Australia's offer of consular visits for years until April last year when Smith made the first of his several prison visits.

Australia had argued there was a disconnect between the U.S. treatment of Assange and U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, a WikiLeaks source. Then-U.S. President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence to seven years, which allowed her release in 2017.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pushed back against Albanese's position during a visit to Australia last year, saying Assange was accused of "very serious criminal conduct" in publishing a trove of classified U.S. documents more than a decade ago.

Support for Assange crossed political party lines in Australia.

Opposition lawmaker and Assange supporter Barnaby Joyce, a former deputy prime minister, said the plea deal was an encouraging development.

“We’ve just got to be still cautious, still cautious on how this proceeds because the end has not arrived,” Joyce told reporters in Australia’s Parliament House. He said Assange should not prosecuted because be committed no offense in the United States.

“If you ask me do I think what he did was morally correct? No, it wasn’t,” Joyce said. “But the issue for me is extraterritoriality.”

Opposition spokesman on foreign affairs Simon Birmingham also welcomed the apparent end to the prosecution.

“We have consistently said that the U.S. and U.K. justice systems should be respected,” Birmingham said on social media.

A motion that called for the U.S. and Britain to bring the "matter to a close so that Mr. Assange can return home to his family in Australia" was supported by 86 lawmakers including Albanese in the 151-seat House of Representatives in February.

Assange’s mother, Christine Assange, said the plea deal “shows the importance and power of quiet diplomacy.”

“I am grateful that my son’s ordeal is finally coming to an end,” she said in a statement.

His father John Shipton used a radio interview with Australian Broadcasting Corp. in Melbourne to thank his son’s supporters.

“It looks as though Julian will be free to come back to Australia and my thanks and congratulations to all his supporters in Australia who made it possible and of course Prime Minister Anthony Albanese,” Shipton said.

Julian Assange's wife and mother of his two children, Stella Assange, was in Sydney awaiting for her husband's return to Australia.

She posted on social media an image of her talking to her husband on FaceTime and with the Sydney Opera House in the background. She said he was speaking from London's Stansted Airport before leaving the U.K.

Julian Assange's lawyer Geoffrey Robertson likened the case to the government-to-government negotiations behind a plea deal in 2007 that enabled Australian al-Qaida supporter David Hicks to be repatriated from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 by the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance as a suspected enemy combatant.

“It was much tougher with Assange because the Pentagon was so determined to punish him,” Robertson told ABC. “In the end, I think partly because Mr. Biden wanted to clear this off his desk in an election year ... it has been resolved.”

Julian Assange was living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2013 when he made failed bid for election to the Australian Senate as a candidate for the short-lived WiliLeaks Party.

FILE - Protesters hold placards in support of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange outside the High Court in London, Monday, May 20, 2024. 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/Kin Cheung, File)

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