Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, pleads guilty to violating the Espionage Act

Washington – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has agreed to plead guilty to violating the Espionage Act and is expected to appear in a US courtroom in the Northern Mariana Islands in the coming days, court documents showed on Monday.

The guilty plea, which will be finalized on Wednesday, will resolve Assange's outstanding legal issues with the US government. Justice Department prosecutors have recommended a 62-month prison sentence as part of the plea deal, CBS News has learned, which is on the high side for a single offense. Assange would not spend time in US custody because under the settlement he will receive credit for the approximately five years he spent in a British prison fight extradition to the US

In a letter to a federal judge on Monday, the Justice Department said Assange was opposed to traveling to the US mainland to plead guilty. The Justice Department expects Assange to return to Australia after the court hearing.

Assange, an Australian citizen, was indicted in 2019 by a federal grand jury in Virginia on more than a dozen counts alleging he illegally obtained and distributed classified information about the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on his WikiLeaks site . Prosecutors at the time accused him of recruiting individuals to “hack computers and/or illegally obtain and disclose classified information.”

He will plead guilty to a charge of conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information.

His lawyer declined to comment.

One of his best-known recruits, U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, was convicted of leaking hundreds of thousands of sensitive military data to WikiLeaks in 2010, which officials said was one of the largest disclosures of classified government data in history. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison and in 2017, former President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.

Assange was accused of working with Manning to discover the password to a Defense Department computer system that stored sensitive data on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment reports.

Federal prosecutors also accused Assange of publishing the names of “individuals around the world who provided information to the U.S. government in circumstances where they could reasonably expect their identities to be kept confidential.”

Assange previously denied any wrongdoing. He and his supporters argued that the charges should never have been filed because he was acting as a journalist in reporting on government actions.

He has been in British custody since 2019 and has embarked on a years-long legal effort to resist extradition to the US and face federal charges. The expected guilty plea puts an end to the intercontinental legal battle.

In May, the WikiLeaks founder won his bid to appeal his extradition to the US on espionage charges, after a British court asked the US government earlier this year to ensure Assange would receive free speech protection under the US Constitution and that he wouldn't get it. face the death penalty if convicted of espionage charges.

President Biden said in April that he was “considering” a request from Australia to allow Assange to return to his native country, calling on the US to drop the case against him.

Assange has faced legal troubles for more than a decade, starting in 2010 when a Swedish prosecutor issued an arrest warrant in connection with allegations of rape and sexual assault by two women, which Assange denied. Faced with extradition to Sweden, he applied for political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he lived for seven years until he was deported in 2019.

Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation into Assange in 2017 and an international arrest warrant for him was withdrawn, but he was still wanted by British police for skipping bail while entering the embassy.

In early 2019, Ecuador became irritated with its London house guest, accusing him of smearing his feces on the walls and attacking the guards.

“He exhausted our patience and pushed our tolerance to the limit,” said Lenin Moreno, then president of Ecuador. said. Moreno accused Assange of selectively being an “information terrorist.” the release of information “in accordance with its ideological commitments.”

At the request of the US government, British police arrested Assange at the embassy on April 11, 2019 after Ecuador terminated his asylum. By then, he was indicted in the US in connection with the 2010 leak.

WikiLeaks was a major player in the 2016 presidential election, publishing thousands of emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee that were stolen by Russian government hackers. WikiLeaks and Assange are mentioned hundreds of times in special counsel Robert Mueller's 448-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, although they have not been charged in the 2016 conduct.

Priscilla Saldana contributed reporting.

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