Julian Assange flies out of UK on $500,000 private jet after being freed in US plea deal

By John Mercury June 25, 2024

Julian Assange is travelling to his native Australia on a private jet after US authorities agreed to drop their demand for the WikiLeaks founder to be extradited from the UK having struck a plea deal with him.

Assange had to pay $500,000 (£394,000) for a chartered flight from Stansted to Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands – a US commonwealth in the Pacific – where he will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information.

In exchange he will be sentenced to time served – the 62 months he has already spent in a British prison – according to court documents.

Julian Assange at Stansted Airport Pic: Wikileaks
Image:
Assange at the airport after leaving prison. Pic: WikiLeaks

Once the guilty plea has been accepted by a judge, the 52-year-old will be free to return to Australia, the country of his birth.

The chartered flight stopped in Bangkok for refuelling on its way to Saipan.

Assange is accompanied by a WikiLeaks lawyer, a representative of the Australian government and a medic to check on his health.

A map showing Julian Assange's journey from the UK to Australia

American prosecutors had alleged Assange put lives at risk when he helped former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files WikiLeaks put online in 2010.

He had been locked in a legal battle in the UK over his extradition, which included him entering the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in 2012 prior to his detention in Belmarsh prison – where he has been since May 2019.

‘Julian is free!’

In a post on X, WikiLeaks said Assange left Belmarsh on Monday morning after being granted bail by the High Court. By the afternoon he was at Stansted Airport where he boarded a plane and left the UK.

“After more than five years in a 2×3 metre cell, isolated 23 hours a day, he will soon reunite with his wife Stella Assange, and their children, who have only known their father from behind bars,” the organisation said.

Stella Assange with her children, Max and Gabriel, marking Julian's 50th birthday back in 2021. Pic: Reuters
Image:
Stella Assange with her children, Max and Gabriel, marking Julian’s 50th birthday back in 2021. Pic: Reuters


Mrs Assange shared on social media a video montage of her husband in a car and then boarding a plane.

She wrote: “Julian is free!!!!

“Words cannot express our immense gratitude to YOU – yes YOU, who have all mobilised for years and years to make this come true. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANK YOU.”

She posted on X to say Assange will owe $520,000 to the Australian government for the charter flight and asked for donations to help pay for it.

Speaking from Australia, Mrs Assange told the PA news agency: “It is hard to believe that Julian has been in prison for so long. It had become normalised. I am grateful to the people who made this possible but I am also angry that it ever came to this.

“Overall I am elated but I cannot believe it is actually happening until I see Julian.”

Mrs Assange said her husband would not have been released without the intervention of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has been increasingly vocal in his demands for the US to drop charges against Assange.

“The public climate has shifted and everyone understands that Julian has been the victim,” she said.

“Things are still very sensitive. Julian is paying for the flight so we will launch a fundraising campaign.”

She said she had travelled to Australia with the couple’s two young sons, Gabriel and Max, on Sunday when it became clear Assange would be freed.

Stella Assange speaking in London on 26 March. Pic: PA
Image:
Stella Assange speaking in London on 26 March. Pic: PA

WikiLeaks shared an update on Assange’s journey on X, posting a picture of him on a jet as it approached Bangkok for a stopover.

Assange’s plea and sentencing on Saipan are scheduled for Wednesday morning local time (Tuesday evening UK time).

The hearing is taking place in the US Commonwealth territory because of Assange’s opposition to travelling to one of the 50 US states and the court’s proximity to Australia.

Read more:
Timeline of Assange’s 13-year legal battle
Plea deal marks end of a transatlantic tug of war

Artist’s threat to destroy masterpieces ‘helped free Assange’

Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton told Sky News this morning the WikiLeaks founder is “overwhelmed to be out of prison”.

Mr Shipton added: “He’s been on a plane for a very long time now… I’ve been speaking to him this week and just going through all the details with him.

“He’s been very anxious, very excited, and he’s looking forward to spending time with his family and being free, being able to have the sun shining on his face, see the birds, go for a swim in the ocean back in Australia.

“He’s very much looking forward to that.”

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Assange brother praises ‘global effort’

Craig Murray, a friend of Assange, told Sky News the news was “absolutely wonderful”.

He said: “The whole family is totally elated that we have finally got an end to this terrible saga.”

Mr Murray said the entire ordeal has been “very taxing” on Assange with his imprisonment taking a toll on both his physical and mental health.

He added: “We are lucky that he is a very resilient man and he will recover and we will get our Julian fully back.”

Simon Crowther, Amnesty International’s legal adviser, said: “We welcome the news that Julian Assange is to be released, as we believe he should never have been imprisoned like this in the first place.

“The fight to protect freedom of expression continues though. The years-long global spectacle of the prosecution of a publisher for revealing alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and other human rights violations has undoubtedly done historic damage.”

A more than decade-long fight

Assange has been fighting extradition to the US for more than a decade.

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Australian PM: ‘We want Assange home’

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Who is Julian Assange?

In a January 2021 ruling, then district judge Vanessa Baraitser said he should not be sent to the US, citing a real and “oppressive” risk of suicide, while ruling against him on all other issues.

Later that year, US authorities won a High Court bid to overturn this block, paving the way towards Assange’s extradition.

In June 2022, the UK government approved the extradition of Assange to the US, with then home secretary Priti Patel having signed the extradition order.

Why has the US dropped the extradition demand?

The US formally asked the UK to extradite Julian Assange to face charges that he conspired to hack government computers and violated an espionage law in 2019.

After five years, this request has been dropped, with the US having come to a plea deal with the WikiLeaks founder – but why now?

Former CIA chief of staff, Larry Pfeiffer, says it is not unusual for these sorts of espionage cases to be adjudicated through plea deals.

“In these sorts of cases justice may not be the only issue that needs to be dealt with,” he told Sky News.

Mr Pfeiffer said if the case ever went to trial it would have risked “sources and methods” that the US military and government use being exposed.

“[This case] also served as a thorn in UK-US relations and US-Australian relations,” he added.

“It was creating issues surrounding what we all love, which is liberty and freedom of the case. By resolving this we resolved some of those troublesome issues.”

Mr Pfeiffer says overall he thinks the plea deal is a “win, win”.

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In February of this year, he made one final attempt under UK law to avoid being sent to the US.

In March, Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Johnson dismissed most of Assange’s legal arguments – but said unless assurances were given by the US, he would be able to bring an appeal on three grounds.

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These assurances were that Assange would be protected by and allowed to rely on the First Amendment – which protects freedom of speech in the US – that he would not be “prejudiced at trial” due to his nationality and the death penalty would not be imposed.

Three months later, in May, two High Court judges ruled he would be allowed to appeal against being extradited, would not face the death penalty and he could rely on the First Amendment if he faced a trial for spying.

The Australian government said it continues to provide consular assistance to Assange.

“Prime Minister Albanese has been clear – Mr Assange’s case has dragged on for too long and there is nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration,” a spokesperson said.

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