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Julian Assange to reunite with family that has only known him in prison

julian-assange-to-reunite-with-family-that-has-only-known-him-in-prison

Julian Assange to reunite with family that has only known him in prison

Neal Pritchard Photography/Getty Images

(LONDON) — When Wikileaks founder Julian Assange sets foot in his native Australia Wednesday, he will be a free man for the first time after 14 years spent in some form of confinement while attempting to avoid U.S. prosecution.

He will also meet his two young sons for the first time ever outside of prison.

Assange is due to appear in federal court in the Northern Marianas Islands, a remote U.S. territory in the Western Pacific, early Wednesday morning local time, where he will plead guilty to one felony count of illegally obtaining and classified information as part of a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors. After that, he is expected to fly to his native Australia. There he will be met by his wife, Stella and their two young sons, who have never known him outside of captivity.

“When we met he was under house arrest. It will be the first time that I get to see him as a fully free man,” Stella Assange told Reuters on Tuesday, after news of the plea deal was announced.

Stella first met Assange as his lawyer in 2011 when he was under house arrest in the U.K. fighting extradition to Sweden on potential sexual assault charges. Shortly afterward, Assange fled to Ecuador’s embassy in London to avoid the charges. He remained trapped there for seven years, facing arrest if he stepped outside.

Assange and Stella began a relationship while he was confined in the embassy, and they conceived their two sons there.

In 2019, Assange was arrested by U.K. police after Ecuador evicted him from the embassy and a British court sentenced him to 50 weeks in London’s Belmarsh prison for violating his bail conditions related to the Swedish sexual assault charges, even though Swedish prosecutors by then had dropped the charges. Since then, Assange has spent the past five years in Belmarsh, one of the U.K.’s most high-security prisons.

The couple’s sons, Gabriel and Max, aged 7 and 5, have only ever met their father in visitor rooms during twice-a-month visits to Belmarsh. In 2022, Stella and Assange married in a ceremony held at the prison.

Stella Assange described the visits to ABC News last summer, saying each time she and the boys had to endure searches by guards, including in their mouths, and be examined by sniffer dogs.

At the time, Stella said she feared Assange wouldn’t survive being extradited to the U.S.

“If he’s taken to the U.S. I can feel it that he will never come home,” she told ABC outside the prison, following one such visit.

Assange was confined to his cell in Belmarsh 23 hours a day, according to a journalist who wrote in The Nation about visiting him in prison last year. A United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture in 2019 criticized British authorities, saying the handling of Assange’s case put in doubt the U.K.’s commitment to human rights, and saying his treatment in Belmarsh amounted to “psychological torture”.

Stella Assange said the family now plans to spend time recovering in Australia, where the government has pressed the U.S. for years to free Assange. The sensitivity of the plea deal and the need to avoid leaks meant Stella decided not to tell her sons of their father’s release even as they flew to Australia to meet him, she said in an interview with BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday.

“We got on the plane and I told them that we were going to visit our family, their cousin, their grandfather and so on. And they still don’t know,” she told Radio 4. “We’ve been very careful because, obviously, no one can stop a five- and a seven-year-old from shouting it from the rooftops at any given moment.

Stella Assange led the campaign to free Assange over the years, defending him as a journalist being persecuted for his publishing evidence of misconduct by the U.S. government and military.

U.S. prosecutors’ decision to charge Assange under the Espionage Act alarmed press freedom advocates and also leading U.S. media organizations, which feared the decision risked setting a precedent that could criminalize the publication of government secrets, something news outlets routinely do. Major news organizations, including The New York Times, had urged the Biden administration to drop the case.

Stella Assange said the plea deal still posed that danger to news organizations in the U.S. because even though it carried no additional prison time, Assange had still been convicted under the Espionage Act. She said Assange’s team intends to seek a full pardon following his release.

“The correct course of action from the U.S. government should have been to drop the case entirely,” she told Reuters. “The fact that there is a guilty plea under the Espionage Act in relation to obtaining and disclosing national defense information is obviously a very serious concern for journalists.”

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