Explainer: Who is Julian Assange and what are the details of his plea deal?

The founder of WikiLeaks brought to light US military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan

Julian Assange is expected to plead guilty to a single US felony charge. Photograph: Press Association file photo, dated January 2020

Julian Assange has been freed from prison and is expected to plead guilty to a single US felony charge, in what could spell the end to a years-long saga that has spanned continents and seen him hailed as a champion of press freedom and a threat to national security.

Who is Julian Assange?

Assange was born in 1971 in Townsville, in the Australian state of Queensland. He became interested in computers at a young age and by the early 1990s he was considered one of Australia’s most accomplished hackers.

In 2006 he founded WikiLeaks, an organisation that published leaked material. It wasn’t until 2010 that Assange reached global prominence after publishing a series of leaks by Chelsea Manning, a former US army soldier. Among the files was a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

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The US government launched a criminal investigation and Manning was ultimately convicted and jailed for the leaks, although she later had her sentence commuted.


In November 2010, WikiLeaks released a dump of more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables (some of which were published in the Guardian).

In 2016, Assange made headlines again after WikiLeaks published emails from Democratic Party operatives in the lead up to the US presidential election. US prosecutors said the emails were stolen by Russian intelligence and formed part of an operation to interfere in the election on behalf of Donald Trump.

Assange has been heralded by many around the world as a hero who brought to light US military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan, but his reputation has also been tarnished by rape allegations, which he denies.

A pedestrian observes truck with giant Assange portrait during a pro-Assange campaigners protest in Berlin, Germany in February 2024.
Why was he in jail?

An arrest warrant for Assange was issued in 2010 for two separate sexual assault allegations in Sweden. After a UK court ruled that he could be extradited to Sweden Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy where he was granted political asylum. At the time it was reported he feared that if he were extradited to Sweden he might be then be extradited on to the US.

He remained there for almost seven years, during which time his relations with the Ecuadorian government became increasingly hostile. The country’s foreign minister in 2019 accused Assange of rude behaviour, which stretched from riding a skateboard and playing football inside the embassy to mistreating and threatening embassy staff.

In 2017, Swedish authorities dropped their charges against Assange, but his UK arrest warrant for skipping bail still remained. In 2019 Ecuador withdrew his asylum and allowed UK police to enter the embassy to arrest him.

After his departure from the embassy, Assange was arrested on behalf of the US which had requested his extradition. The US wanted him to face 18 charges and accused him of encouraging and helping Manning steal the military files. If found guilty he faced a sentence of up to 175 years in prison.

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Why has he been released?

For the past five years, Assange has been imprisoned in a high-security prison in south London where he has been denied bail on the grounds that he is deemed to be a flight risk. Throughout this time, his family and supporters say his physical and mental health has been declining.

In 2021, a UK court said that Assange could be extradited to the US, but earlier this year he won the right to appeal that verdict.

In February, the Australian parliament passed a motion that called on the US and UK governments to allow Assange to return to his native country. Then in April, the US president, Joe Biden, said he was considering a request from Australia to drop the prosecution against Assange.

Although its unclear why he has been released now, Assange’s family – including his mother – said on Tuesday that the end of his “ordeal” was down to “quiet diplomacy”, while his father thanked the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese.

What’s in the deal?

Assange is scheduled to appear in a federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth in the western Pacific, where he is expected to plead guilty to one charge under the Espionage Act of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defence information. The extradition request is expected to be dropped and Assange won’t face any other charges.

The hearing is taking place in the Northern Mariana Islands because of Assange’s opposition to travelling to the US mainland and the court’s proximity to Australia.

Prosecutors have agreed to a sentence of five years, but have said the time already served in a British prison will count towards this. This means that he will probably walk free after the sentencing. The guilty plea must still be approved by a judge, but if it is, he is expected to return to Australia after the sentencing.

John Shipton, Assange’s father, told Australian media on Tuesday that it appears “Julian will be able to enjoy an ordinary life with his family and his wife, Stella”. - The Guardian and The Associated Press