By Mark Duell

Inside the secret deal that freed Julian Assange: The extraordinary behind closed doors negotiations and legal lifeline that led to WikiLeaks founder's surprise release

It's been a criminal case of international intrigue that went on for 14 years as he spent years holed up in an embassy and then a high-security prison.

But a long-awaited plea deal means Julian Assange has now arrived in his native Australia to be reunited with his family and start a new life as a free man.
The deal to secure the WikiLeaks founder's liberty has been in the making since at least March but really began in Canberra with a change of government in 2022.

Assange's wife Stella has herself said his release would not have happened without the intervention of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who became increasingly vocal in demands for the US to drop charges against the 52-year-old.

Assange had been locked in an extraordinary legal fight to avoid being extradited to the US, which saw him live in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in 2012 before his detention at Belmarsh Prison for five years, mostly in solitary confinement.

The twists and turns of his battles with the law date back all the way to 1996 when he struck a plea deal over hacking charges in Australia - pleading guilty to 24 counts and avoiding prison at the age of 25.

Then in November 2010, Sweden issued a European arrest warrant for Assange for allegations of sexual assault. Prosecutors eventually discontinued their investigation into this in 2019.

After losing his appeal against the warrant in 2012, he breached bail and took refuge in Ecuador's embassy in London.

He was officially granted asylum by the South American country on grounds of political persecution and fears he might be extradited to the US.

Assange had faced a maximum jail sentence of 175 years after being charged with 17 counts of breaching the US Espionage Act and a hacking-related charge.

But in April 2019, his asylum was withdrawn with the Ecuadorian authorities blaming his 'repeated violations' of 'international conventions and daily-life protocols'.

The police were invited into the embassy and he was arrested before being taken to high-security Belmarsh Prison in South East London, as the US government's extradition effort was contested in UK courts.

Legal battles continued, with the UK's Crown Prosecution Service later revealing that the possibility of a plea deal 'first came to our attention in March'.

And on Monday, Assange finally left the UK following his dramatic release from prison as he began his journey to Australia, where he arrived today.

After he was released by a court on the remote US Pacific territory of Saipan earlier today, his lawyer first thanked Mr Albanese for making the outcome possible.

Jennifer Robinson, Assange's Australian lawyer, said diplomacy and intense lobbying with the highest authorities in the US played a big role in him walking free.

'At every opportunity, and when Australian officials were making outreach to the US, they knew that they were acting with the full authority of the prime minister of Australia,' she told reporters outside the courtroom in Saipan.

Mr Albanese - leader of the centre-left Labor government - has claimed Assange's release as a win for Australia, which leveraged its security ties with Washington and London to strengthen its case to resolve the plight of an Australian citizen.

'This work has been complex and it has been considered. This is what standing up for Australians around the world looks like,' Mr Albanese told the country's parliament today.

Assange, was charged with 17 counts of breaching the US Espionage Act and a hacking-related charge.

But under a deal revealed yesterday, he pled guilty to a single charge of espionage and walked free.

The deal gained momentum as the US faced growing challenges in the UK over the legality of extraditing Assange, while Australian politicians and diplomats increased the pressure in Washington and London.

A decade ago under a conservative government, there was little political will in Canberra to back Assange's case.

But things changed in 2023 when dozens of politicians across the political spectrum swung in behind the campaign to bring him home, Assange's father John Shipton told Reuters.

That swing culminated in the passage of a parliamentary motion in February this year calling for Assange's release.

Mr Shipton said the Australian government had been 'nothing short of magnificent' and praised former prime minister Kevin Rudd and former defence minister Stephen Smith, Australia's top envoys to the US and Britain.

Australian conservative politician Barnaby Joyce, a former deputy prime minister, was among a cross-party group of politicians who travelled to Washington in September to lobby for a resolution.

Mr Joyce said today the trip made the case on Capitol Hill that Australian politicians wanted to 'get this thing done', because it was a distraction to Australia's security alliance with the US.

And lawyer Greg Barns, a long-time advisor to the Australian campaign for Assange, said US politicians saw on that trip that 'this wasn't a party political issue'.

One government official who did not want to be identified said the first big break for Assange came in January 2021, when then shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus issued a statement calling for the case against Assange to end after a British court found that it would be unjust to extradite him to the US.

'This was the first indication that a major political party in Australia was supporting the cause to free Assange,' the official said.

When Labor won power in May 2022, Assange finally had state diplomatic support behind him.

Later that year Mr Albanese called for his release on the floor of the House of Representatives, the first time a Prime Minister had mentioned Assange in parliament since 2012.

'Enough is enough, it is time for this matter to be brought to a conclusion,' he said.

'My position is clear and has been made clear to the US administration that it is time that this matter be brought to a close. This is an Australian citizen.'

Behind the scenes, Mr Albanese and senior cabinet colleagues including Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Attorney General Dreyfus used visits to the US to lobby their counterparts, according to the government official.

The appointment of Mr Smith and Mr Rudd to the top diplomatic jobs in London and Washington in late 2022 added two more sympathetic lobbyists for Assange's cause.

Mr Smith visited Assange in Belmarsh Prison in April 2023, the first such visit by Australia's top UK diplomat since he was imprisoned four years earlier.

Deeper ties between Australia and the US through the Aukus (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) security pact helped push diplomatic efforts along, said Mark Kenny, a professor at Australian National University.

'It looks pretty odd if we're getting ever closer to the US and yet we don't have a special relationship with the US such that we can advocate and get concessions for an Australian citizen,' Mr Kenny added.

As recently as last July, US officials appeared determined to prosecute Assange.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that month Australia needed to understand US concerns over the issue.

However, a month later, US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy said a deal was possible.

After the cross-party delegation of Australian politicians travelled to Washington in September to speak to Republicans and Democrats about the Assange case, the Biden administration appeared to be softening its response.

Joe Biden said in April, 'We are considering it,' when asked by media about Australia's request to end Assange's prosecution.

But it was the UK High Court's decision in May to allow Assange to appeal against his extradition that triggered the breakthrough in negotiations over a plea deal according to his wife Stella.

The court's decision meant the legal battle over extradition would likely be delayed for months more to make time for appeals.

An early plan to have Assange fly to New York or Washington to enter his plea was changed to Saipan because of Assange's opposition to entering the continental US, according to an Australian government official.

The deal marks the end of a legal saga following WikiLeaks' mass release of secret US documents in 2010 - one of the largest security breaches in US military history.

WikiLeaks rose to prominence with a series of high-profile leaks, starting with the Afghan War documents in July, and culminating in the Iraq War logs and the release of a series of top secret diplomatic cables.

The leaks detailed thousands of civilian deaths as a result of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts and implicated American armed forces in the killing of innocent bystanders.

As Assange was moved from Belmarsh to London Stansted Airport in the dead of night on Monday, the secrecy was such that his children weren't told in case they spilled details about his release, according to Mrs Assange.

Assange will pay about £400,000 for the chartered flight on which he left Stansted.

And in a global outpouring of support following the news, WikiLeaks launched a fundraising campaign to pay for the flight which has so far raised more than £250,000.

"I don't think that would have happened if it hadn't been for the incredible support that there has been for Julian, and which has been building over the years, which is global, which is across all sectors, all politics,"

Quote by Mrs Assange