Julian Assange returns home to Australia a free man after U.S. plea deal

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange returned home to Australia a free man on Wednesday after pleading guilty in a deal that ended his yearslong legal battle over the publication of U.S. military secrets.

Assange’s plane, tracked online by thousands, touched down in the Australian capital of Canberra at 7:37 p.m. (5:37 a.m. ET), data from flight-tracking platform Flightradar24 showed.

He embraced his wife and father and raised his clenched fist in salute to his cheering supporters.

“Free at last,” WikiLeaks said in a post on X.

It was the end of a round-the-world journey that began Monday when Assange left Britain, where he had spent more than five years in prison as he fought extradition to the United States.

Assange, 52, flew on a chartered plane to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth north of Guam, where on Wednesday morning he pleaded guilty under the U.S. Espionage Act to a single criminal count of conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information.

His guilty plea was the final chapter in a legal saga that began more than a decade ago, when he published a trove of classified documents that embarrassed several governments and which the U.S. government says threatened national security and aided adversaries.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange returned home to Australia to start life as a free man June 26 after admitting he revealed US defence secrets in a deal that unlocked the door to his London prison cell.
Assange hugged his wife Stella after arriving in Canberra on Wednesday.William West / AFP – Getty Images
Assange lands in Australia
The WikiLeaks founder gave supporters a thumbs up as he left the plane.William West / AFP – Getty Images

“I believe the First Amendment and the Espionage Act are in contradiction with each other, but I accept that it would be difficult to win such a case given all these circumstances,” Assange said at the U.S. federal court in Saipan, according to an NBC News affiliate reporter who was at the hearing.

In accordance with the plea deal revealed Monday, Assange was sentenced to the 62 months he had already served in prison in Britain. From Saipan Assange then headed about 3,400 miles south to Australia, where he was born and is a citizen.

His wife, Stella Assange, said she was “elated, excited, exhausted,” telling viewers in a YouTube livestream before his arrival, “I am very nervous and excited about meeting Julian at the airport.”

Australian authorities had long lobbied the U.S. to drop its extradition efforts or come up with a diplomatic solution that would allow for Assange’s return home.

“We wanted him brought home. Tonight that has happened,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters shortly after Assange’s arrival. “This is a culmination of careful, patient, and determined advocacy.”

Assange’s return home has come at “a massive cost,” Stella Assange said. She said Assange was not allowed to fly commercial and owes the Australian government $520,000 for the cost of his flight.

A crowdfunding campaign launched by his supporters had raised almost $400,000 as of Wednesday morning.

Assange had been indicted on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse in connection with publications by WikiLeaks, which he founded in 2006.

With the help of whistleblower Chelsea Manning, the website leaked about 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables as well as classified U.S. military documents and videos from the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including video of an Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed civilians.

In its 2019 indictmentthe Justice Department called it “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States.”

“Assange’s decision to reveal the names of human sources illegally shared with him by Manning created a grave and imminent risk to human life,” the department said in a statement after Assange’s guilty plea on Wednesday.

Assange has returned to his homeland Australia aboard a charter jet hours after pleading guilty to obtaining and publishing U.S. military secrets in a deal with Justice Department prosecutors that concludes a drawn-out legal saga.
The plane carrying Assange landed Wednesday at a former Royal Australian Air Force base.Rick Rycroft / AP

Assange’s legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him over sexual assault allegations made by two women. In 2012, after he was ordered extradited to Sweden, he was granted political asylum by the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he lived for almost seven years.

The embassy revoked Assange’s political asylum in 2019, leading to his arrest and imprisonment. Though Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation later that year, the U.S. made a formal extradition request that Assange spent five years fighting from the high-security Belmarsh prison on the outskirts of London.

Barry Pollack, Assange’s U.S. attorney, said outside court in Saipan on Wednesday that as a journalist and publisher, Assange should never have been charged.

“Mr. Assange revealed truthful, important and newsworthy information, including revealing that the United States had committed war crimes,” he said.

Despite his guilty plea, Assange’s family says he will be seeking a U.S. presidential pardon, arguing that the deal sets a dangerous precedent for journalists.

In the meantime, Assange is reuniting with his wife and their two sons, whom Assange fathered while he was living at the Ecuadorean Embassy.

“They are bouncing around like two little balls jumping on the sofa,” Stella Assange said in the livestream. “They are very, very excited.”

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