Assange walks free: what happens to him, WikiLeaks, and free speech now?

World’s leaker-in-chief Julian Assange has been released from a British prison and is expected to plead guilty to violating US espionage law before returning home to native Australia. Why now and what happens now?

Filings in the US district court for the Northern Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth in the Pacific Ocean, Assange, who’s 52 years old, agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified US national defense documents.

Assange, a hacker who founded Wikileaks back in 2006, will most probably do it in a hearing scheduled for Wednesday morning at 9AM ET, US Department of Justice documents say.

On X, WikiLeaks posted a video of Assange boarding a flight at London’s Stansted airport on Monday evening. The organization said: “Julian Assange is free. He left Belmarsh maximum security prison on the morning of 24 June, after having spent 1901 days there.”

A signal to free speech

Assange was indicted on 18 charges in 2019 when he was arrested by British police after being expelled from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had claimed asylum for more than six years.

According to NBC News, he is expected to be sentenced to 62 months, with credit for time served in British prison, allowing Assange to go free and return to his birthplace of Australia.

Of course, a judge will still have to approve the deal under which the rest of the charges against Assange would be dropped and the US request for his extradition would be withdrawn.

It seems all interested parties – the US, Australia, and the United Kingdom – did not want the Assange case to drag on. US president Joe Biden recently said he was considering a request from Australia to drop America’s push to prosecute Assange.

“Regardless of the views that people have about Julian Assange and his activities, the case has dragged on for too long, there is nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia,” Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese said on Tuesday.

What now? Assange himself cannot yet comment on the proceedings, of course. But the mere fact that he’s pleading guilty to a national security offense will surely place limitations on his future travel, including, of course, to the US.

However, Assange will be free to speak after he’s officially released – and he will have a lot to say. Not only is Assange pretty narcissistic, but his case has also set a practical precedent: a publisher can be convicted under the Espionage Act in the US.

Many press freedom advocates have indeed argued that criminally charging Assange represents a threat to free speech.

“This is not a clear victory for freedom of the press,” The Guardian wrote of Assange’s journey to Australia. “The Espionage Act will still hang over the heads of journalists reporting on national security issues, not just in the US. Assange himself is an Australian, not a US citizen.”

“Miscarriage of justice”

American prosecutors, on the other hand, argued that Assange was a hacker who endangered the lives of US sources and contacts rather than a proper journalist, so the Espionage Act could be applied without harming press freedom.

The US claims WikiLeaks gravely damaged American national security when in 2010 it released hundreds of thousands of classified US military documents on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Swaths of diplomatic cables followed.

WikiLeaks also published a video from a US military helicopter that showed civilians, including two journalists, being killed in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in 2007. The documents showed that 66,000 civilians were killed during the Iraq war – much more than reported by the US government.

Washington hates leaks, obviously. Earlier this year, Joshua Adam Schulte, a former CIA employee, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for crimes of espionage, hacking, and child pornography after he shared classified data with WikiLeaks.

Now, former US vice-president Mike Pence criticizes the deal to send Assange to Australia and calls it a “miscarriage of justice.”

“There should be no plea deals to avoid prison for anyone that endangers the security of our military or the national security of the United States. Ever,” Pence posted on X.

During Assange’s arrest, the WikiLeaks website was still live, but it has not published any new reports since 2021 and is full of broken pages and error notices. It remains to be seen whether the platform will spring back to life once Assange is online again.