Stella Assange thanks Australian lawmakers for WikiLeaks founder’s freedom

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Stella Assange thanked the spectrum of lawmakers who campaigned for her husband, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, to be freed during her visit Thursday to Australia’s Parliament House, where political leaders differed over how welcome the convicted felon was in his homeland.

“Julian is overjoyed and so grateful to the Australian people, to the members of Parliament and to the government and also the opposition who came together to voice the need for his release,” Stella Assange said.

Assange has made no public comment since he arrived in Australia on Wednesday after pleading guilty to obtaining and publishing U.S. military secrets in a deal with U.S. Justice Department prosecutors that ended his 14-year legal battle for freedom.

The Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group began with a few federal lawmakers in 2019 and expanded to 47 — one of five of the total in Canberra — as a consensus grew that the prosecution over WikiLeaks’ release of almost half a million documents relating to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010 had taken too long.

His lawyers now want to swing that public and political support behind a campaign to have Assange’s conviction pardoned.

“President (Joe) Biden or any subsequent president absolutely can and, in my mind, should issue a pardon to Julian Assange,” lawyer Barry Pollack said.

However, White House National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said Thursday Biden is not considering a pardon for Assange.

But while Australian lawmakers largely agreed that the time had come for Assange to be brought home, they disagreed on whether he deserved the same level of support as Australians recently released from arbitrary detention in China, Iran and Myanmar thanks to government intervention.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has been credited with the diplomatic coup that enabled Assange to be released from a London prison to travel to Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Western Pacific where he pleaded guilty to a single charge under the Espionage Act.

With credit given for the five years Assange had spent in Belmarsh Prison fighting extradition, he was allowed to return to Australia without serving any more jail time.

Opposition lawmakers argue Albanese risked damaging relations with the United States, Australia’s most important security partner, by telephoning Assange moments after the former computer hacker had landed in Canberra.

“It’s not necessary nor appropriate for Anthony Albanese to welcome home Julian Assange on the same day he’s admitted to espionage acts,” opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs Simon Birmingham said. But Stella Assange argued her husband should never have been charged.

“He was pleading guilty to committing journalism. This case criminalizes journalism, journalistic activity, standard journalist activity of news gathering and publishing,” she said.

Assange was accused of receiving and publishing war logs and diplomatic cables that included details of U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. His activities drew an outpouring of support from press freedom advocates, who heralded his role in bringing to light military conduct that might otherwise have been concealed from view and warned of a chilling effect on journalists. Among the files published by WikiLeaks was a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

Assange has been celebrated by supporters as a transparency crusader but lambasted by national security hawks who insist that his conduct put lives at risks and strayed far beyond the bounds of traditional journalism duties.

Questioned at a news conference after Assange’s return, Albanese declined to say whether he considered him a journalist who had been wrongly pursued by U.S. authorities.

“I think that there will continue to be different views about Julian Assange and his activity,” Albanese said.

“My role as prime minister has been to firmly say that whatever the views that people have, there was no purpose to be served by this ongoing incarceration,” Albanese added.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong distanced the government from the Assange campaign for the crime to be pardoned.

“That is a matter for Mr. Assange and his legal team and the decision on that is a matter for the United States,” Wong said.

“What we are pleased about is that he is home. We did think his incarceration had dragged on,” she added.

Stella Assange, a South Africa-born lawyer who married her husband in prison in 2022, has given few clues to his future career.

“He plans to swim in the ocean every day. He plans to sleep in a real bed. He plans to taste real food and he plans to enjoy his freedom,” she said.

“Julian is the most principled man I know and he will always defend human rights and speak out against injustice and he can choose how he does that, because he is a free man,” she added.


Associated Press journalist Aamer Madhani in Washington, DC contributed.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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