Assange arrives in Australia following release on US plea deal

Assange arrives in Australia following release on US plea deal

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has arrived in Australia after he was freed by a United States court in Saipan under a plea deal.

Assange’s plane landed in Canberra on Wednesday, hours after the 52-year-old pleaded guilty in a court in Saipan to a charge of espionage, related to obtaining and publishing US military secrets.

In the US Pacific territory courtroom, District Judge Ramona Manglona had sentenced Assange to five years and two months – the time he spent in prison in the United Kingdom fighting extradition to the US – and said he was free to go.

“With this pronouncement, it appears that you will be able to walk out of this courtroom a free man,” the judge said on Wednesday.

“I can’t stop crying,” his wife, Stella, wrote on the social media platform X.

The Australian had earlier flown into Saipan from the UK on a private aircraft. He walked into the court accompanied by members of his legal team and Australia’s ambassador to the US, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

He answered basic questions from the judge and listened as the terms of the deal were discussed.

Addressing the court, Assange said he believed the Espionage Act under which he was charged contradicted First Amendment rights in the US Constitution, but that he accepted that encouraging sources to provide classified information for publication could be unlawful.

As a condition of his plea, he will be required to destroy information provided to WikiLeaks.

Saipan was chosen for the court appearance due to Assange’s opposition to travelling to the mainland US as well as its proximity to his home in Australia, prosecutors said.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the hearing was a “welcome development”.

Australia used “all appropriate channels” to support a “positive outcome” in the case, he said.

“Regardless of your views about Mr Assange, his case has dragged on for too long. There is nothing to be gained from his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia,” Albanese told reporters in Canberra.

Following the judge’s ruling, a representative for Assange said the WikiLeaks founder would not be making a statement or taking questions.

His lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, said it was an “historic day” and thanked Albanese for helping make Assange’s release possible.

Fidel Narvaez, a former Ecuadorean diplomat who gave Assange political asylum at Ecuador’s embassy in London in 2012, told Al Jazeera that he felt “overwhelmed by joy” that Assange was released.

“I am celebrating, of course,” Narvaez said, adding that Assange has been facing “persecution by the most powerful country in the world” for 14 years, while simultaneously being abandoned by his own country.

Narvaez pointed out that Assange would probably not have taken a guilty plea deal had it been offered to him years ago, noting that this has set a precedent that will discourage others from repeating his actions in the future.

“Who will want to replicate what Julian Assange and WikiLeaks did if they know what is going to come after them for publishing the truth? This is not a perfect picture, but Julian is free and I think the world is a much better place today than it was yesterday,” Narvaez said.

Barry Pollack, another of Assange’s lawyers, said his client had been the victim of an injustice.

“The prosecution of Julian Assange is unprecedented,” he told reporters outside the court.

“In the 100 years of the Espionage Act, it has never been used by the United States to pursue a publisher, a journalist, like Mr Assange. Mr Assange revealed truthful, important and newsworthy information including revealing that the United States had committed war crimes, and he has suffered tremendously.”

The release of Assange and his return to Australia appears to mark the final chapter in a 14-year battle.

Assange spent more than five years in a UK high-security jail, and before that seven years inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London, as he fought accusations of sex crimes in Sweden, which were later dropped, and battled extradition to the US, where he faced 18 criminal charges.

Assange’s supporters view him as being victimised because he exposed US military crimes in its conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington has said the release of the secret documents put lives in danger.

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