WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange declared ‘free man’ in Saipan after US plea deal | WikiLeaks News

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange expected to return to Australia after his court appearance in the US Pacific territory.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been freed after he pleaded guilty in a Saipan court to a single charge of espionage as part of a deal with the United States Justice Department allowing him to return to his native Australia.

Assange, 52, admitted a single count of conspiracy to obtain and disclose classified US national defence documents on Wednesday morning in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, which is a US commonwealth territory in the Western Pacific.

US District Judge Ramona Manglona later sentenced him to five years and two months – the time he has been in prison in the United Kingdom fighting extradition to the US, news agencies reported.

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

The Australian earlier flew in from the United Kingdom on a private aircraft and smiled as he walked into court in a dark suit, with his tie loosened around the collar, accompanied by members of his legal team and Australia’s ambassador to the United States Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister.

Inside, he answered basic questions from the judge and listened as the terms of the deal were discussed.

Addressing the court, Assange said that 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 that was 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.

An onward flight schedule shared by Wikileaks showed his onward flight arriving in Canberra in Australia at 6.41pm (08:41 GMT).

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

Australia had used “all appropriate channels” to support a “positive outcome” in the case, he said, noting that Rudd was accompanying Assange.

“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 taking questions.

The court appearance and freeing of Assange represent the final chapter in a 14 year battle over the fate of the computer expert, whose hugely popular secret-sharing website WikiLeaks made him a cause célèbre among press freedom advocates who said he acted as a journalist to expose US military wrongdoing.

Assange spent more than five years in a UK high-security jail and 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 a victim 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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