Julian Assange is on his way to freedom – but the fight is far from over

The forces that imprisoned Julian for the ‘crime’ of doing journalism are still not defeated.

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has been set free after fighting a long-running legal battle against extradition to the United States, where he could have been jailed for life on espionage charges [Wikileaks]

During one of the many conversations I had with Julian Assange while he was at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, I asked him what he would do first if he could get out of the building.

“I would look at the sky,” he said, calmly.

This was in 2016, and at that time he had already spent more than 2,500 days without seeing the sky.

Three years later, in April 2019, he was finally “allowed” to leave the embassy, but was not given a single moment to look up at the sky.

British police barged into the building, arrested him, and quickly transferred him to the high-security Belmarsh Prison in South London, where he would remain imprisoned and basically in solitary confinement, for the next five years.

I’ve known Julian for over nine years, but never got to meet him as a free man.

His two children, now five and seven years old, never got to see their father as a free man either.

This injustice, finally and hopefully, seems to be coming to an end.

As I write this, Julian is in a plane in the sky, flying towards an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is under US jurisdiction.

Once he gets there, he will face an American judge and plead guilty to a “crime” – one count of conspiracy to obtain and disclose classified US national defence documents.  He will then be sentenced to “time already served”, and hopefully, return to his native Australia as a free man.

So, today is a day for celebration. One of the most courageous publishers of our age is – finally – on his way to freedom.

As we celebrate Julian’s freedom, however, we must not turn a blind eye to the grave crime simultaneously being committed against not only him, but also journalism and freedom of speech.

Today, Julian is being forced to plead guilty to a made-up “crime” after years of arbitrary detention, but those who are responsible for the very real crimes that he exposed – the killing of Reuters journalists and Iraqi civilians by US forces among others – are still walking free.

Today, in freeing Julian Assange under these conditions – forcing him to plead guilty to the “crime” of doing journalism and holding power to account – the US empire is once again attempting to intimidate journalists, publishers and activists everywhere who dare to put a spotlight on its own very real, very deadly, crimes.

I cannot help, but ask: Can any of us truly consider ourselves free if the basic principles of journalism, such as protecting sources and revealing the crimes of our governments, are now being treated as crimes?

Are we really free, if it is not those who committed the crimes Wikileaks exposed, or the crimes being livestreamed today on our phones from Gaza, but Julian Assange who is being made to “plead guilty”?

On this day, as Julian flies to his freedom, I want to be hopeful, and say, “Yes, we are, against all odds, still to a certain degree free.”

And we will remain free as long as there are people like Julian Assange, like Chelsea Manning, like Edward Snowden, who dare to question the conduct of our governments and expose their brutality. We will remain free as long as principled journalists and publishers, whistleblowers and political prisoners all around the world continue to speak truth to power no matter the consequences.

We are free and we will remain free as long as those who campaigned for Julian’s freedom for so many years, thousands of people from all walks of life all over the world, continue to fight for journalism, freedom of speech, and justice.

All those years ago, during our conversation at the Ecuadorian Embassy, Julian had told me while he wanted to “look at the sky”, he did not resent not being able to.

“This is not a price I have stumbled across, because I didn’t understand how the world works,” he told me. “That’s the price I knew I would pay, not this particular price, but a price like this. Yes, the situation is tough, but I’m confident there are prices to pay for what you believe in”.

Julian indeed paid a heavy price for what he believed in. He faced unimaginable abuse for doing courageous, crucial, indispensable journalism. He spent years without being able to look up to the blue sky as a free man.

But in the end, he won. And he taught us all a very important lesson. During his years of arbitrary, unlawful, unjust detention, he managed not to abandon his principles. He knew how the world works, and the heavy price he would need to pay to change it. And he took on that price with pride and conviction.

He showed us all how to fight for what we believe in.

Wikileaks just published a photo of him looking at the sky from the window of his plane. I found so much joy and hope in that photo. Sure, the war criminals, from the US to Israel, are still free, and so many around the world are still facing persecution, abuse and lawfare for daring to expose their excesses. But seeing Julian on his way to freedom makes me believe we are making progress. The movement for justice and accountability is now stronger, more united and determined than ever before.

Let’s celebrate Julian’s freedom, once he safely reaches Australian soil and reunites with his family. Let’s rejoice the fact that once he gets there, he will be able to look up at the sky whenever he pleases.

But then, let’s remember that the forces that took away his freedom in the first place, the forces that are still threatening our freedoms today, are not yet defeated. And let’s continue with the hard work of fighting for what we believe in.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.