WikiLeaks founder Assange welcomed home in Australia a free man after US deal


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at a United States District Court in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, U.S., June 26, 2024. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

CANBERRA (Reuters) -WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange landed to an ecstatic welcome in Australia on Wednesday after pleading guilty to violating U.S. espionage law in a deal that sets him free from a 14-year legal battle.

Assange disembarked from a private jet at Canberra airport just after 7:30 p.m. (0930 GMT), waving to waiting media and cheering supporters before passionately kissing his wife, Stella, and lifting her off the ground.

He embraced his father before entering the terminal building with his legal team.

Assange has not spoken publicly since being released and did not appear at a Wikileaks press conference at a hotel in Canberra, where Stella Assange said it was too soon to say what her husband would do next.

"Julian needs time to recover, to get used to freedom," she said. "I want Julian to have that space to rediscover that freedom."

She added she believed her husband would one day be pardoned.

Australia Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has lobbied for years to free Assange, said he had spoken to him by phone after his plane landed.

"I had a very warm discussion with him this evening, he was very generous in his praise of the Australian government's efforts," Albanese told an earlier press conference.

"The Australian government stands up for Australian citizens, that's what we do."

Assange's arrival ends a saga in which he spent more than five years in a British high-security jail and seven years in asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London battling extradition to Sweden on sexual assault allegations and to the U.S., where he faced 18 criminal charges.

Those charges stemmed from WikiLeaks' release in 2010 of hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. military documents on Washington's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - one of the largest breaches of secret information in U.S. history.

During a three-hour hearing held earlier in the U.S. territory of Saipan, Assange pleaded guilty to one criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified national defence documents but said he had believed the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which protects free speech, shielded his activities.

"Working as a journalist I encouraged my source to provide information that was said to be classified in order to publish that information," he told the court.

"I believed the First Amendment protected that activity but I accept that it was...a violation of the espionage statute."

Chief U.S. District Judge Ramona V. Manglona accepted his guilty plea, noting that the U.S. government indicated there was no personal victim from Assange's actions.

She wished Assange, who turns 53 on July 3, an early happy birthday as she released him due to time already served in a British jail.

HAILED AS HERO

While the U.S. government viewed Assange as reckless for putting its agents at risk of harm by publishing their names, his supporters hailed him as a hero for promoting free speech and exposing war crimes.

"We firmly believe that Mr. Assange never should have been charged under the Espionage Act and engaged in (an) exercise that journalists engage in every day," his U.S. lawyer, Barry Pollack, told reporters outside the court.

He said WikiLeaks' work would continue.

Assange's British and Australian lawyer Jennifer Robinson thanked the Australian government for securing Assange's release. His father, John Shipton, told Reuters he was relieved.

"That Julian can come home to Australia and see his family regularly and do the ordinary things of life is a treasure," Shipton said in Canberra, where he was waiting for his son.

"The beauty of the ordinary is the essence of life."

Assange had agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal count, according to filings in the U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

The U.S. territory in the western Pacific was chosen due to his opposition to travelling to the mainland U.S. and for its proximity to Australia, prosecutors said.

Politicians in Australia who had campaigned for his release raised concern about the guilty plea on U.S. soil, saying he was a journalist who had been convicted for doing his job.

"That is a really alarming precedent. It is the sort of thing we'd expect in an authoritarian or totalitarian country," said Andrew Wilkie, an independent lawmaker who led a parliamentary group advocating for Assange.

Assange spent more than five years in what Judge Manglona called one of Britain's harshest prisons and seven years holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London as he fought extradition.

While stuck at the embassy he had two sons with Stella, who had been one of his lawyers. They married in 2022 at Belmarsh prison in London.

(Reporting by Minwoo Park in Saipan, Peter Hobson and Kirsty Needham in Canberra and Renju Jose and Lewis Jackson in Sydney; Writing by Alasdair Pal and Miral Fahmy; Editing by Stephen Coates, Sonali Paul, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)

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