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The Saipan surprise: How delicate talks led to the unlikely end of Julian Assange’s 12-year saga

WASHINGTON (AP) — About a year and a half ago, a lawyer for Julian Assange presented federal prosecutors in Virginia with a longshot request: Dismiss the case against the WikiLeaks founder.

It was a bold ask given that Assange had published hundreds of thousands of secret documents and was arguably the highest-profile detainee in the world facing a U.S. government extradition request. By that point, the Justice Department had been engaged in a protracted fight in British courts to send him to the United States for trial.

Yet from that request, recounted by a person familiar with the matter, were the seeds that led to Wednesday’s unthinkable moment: Assange stepping out of a U.S. courthouse on a remote Western Pacific island, beginning his journey home after being holed up in self-exile and prison for a dozen years.

“How does it feel to be a free man, Mr. Assange?” someone shouted.

He smiled and nodded and kept walking. There was another flight to catch to take him home to Australia.

The plea deal unfolded against the backdrop of a plodding extradition process that produced no guarantee the self-styled free speech advocate would ever be transferred for prosecution and a recognition by U.S. officials of the more than five years he’d already served in a British prison. By the end, a series of proposals and counterproposals were made to resolve points of division: the Justice Department’s desire for a felony guilty plea and Assange’s refusal to step foot in the continental U.S., where he envisioned any number of potential cataclysmic scenarios for himself.

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