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Assange arrives in Australia after pleading guilty to espionage on the way home

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gives a double thumbs-up after landing in Canberra, Australia, on Wednesday, June 26, 2024. Assange 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.
Rick Rycroft
/
AP
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gives a double thumbs-up after landing in Canberra, Australia, on Wednesday, June 26, 2024. Assange 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.

CANBERRA, Australia — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has finally stepped foot on home soil in Australia after a 14-year legal battle came to a close on Wednesday.

He arrived in Canberra just hours after walking free from a court in the Northern Mariana Islands, a remote U.S. territory in the Pacific.

He had pleaded guilty to one charge of violating U.S. espionage laws. In exchange, U.S. District Judge Ramona Manglona sentenced Assange to time served, noting how long he already spent incarcerated in a high-security prison in London.

“It appears this case ends with me here in Saipan”, Manglona said.

Assange was indicted on espionage and computer misuse charges by a federal grand jury in Virginia in 2019, in what the Justice Department described as one of the largest compromises of classified information in U.S. history.

The indictment accused Assange of conspiring with then-Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning to publish secret reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and U.S. diplomatic cables. Prosecutors said Assange published those materials on his WikiLeaks site without scrubbing them of sensitive information, putting informants and others at risk.

Manning was arrested in 2010 and served seven years in prison before President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.

Assange refused to speak with reporters outside the court, instead he went straight to a waiting car as he started the final leg of a journey which began on Monday in London.

On arrival in Australia he threw a fist in the air as he stepped off the plane before being greeted by his wife and other family members

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he was “very pleased this saga is over” and explained how he spoke with Assange on the phone as soon as he landed.

“I was quite pleased to be the first person here who he spoke with,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Assange’s supporters in Australia have celebrated his release, with the 52-year-old having avoided extradition to the U.S., where prosecutors had pursued him for leaking confidential military material.

“I’m over the moon,” said Australian academic Suelette Dreyfus, who is a close friend of Assange.

“It has been a long journey, almost 15 years of trying to free Julian from harassment and punishment by the U.S. government for acts of journalism,” she added.

But while this has been a day of elation for some in Australia, Assange still divides opinion in his home country.

James Paterson, shadow home affairs minister for Australia’s opposition Liberal Party, told local media that Assange is “no hero.”

“It has come to an end because Mr. Assange has finally agreed to plead guilty to the charges against him, which are very serious national security charges,” Paterson told Sky News Australia.

Shadow-attorney general Michaelia Cash echoed these claims, saying Assange “put Australian lives in danger” by leaking sensitive information.

Efforts to secure Assange’s release have been ramped up in recent years, largely due to a change in administration in Australia with Albanese taking office.

The prime minister has raised the case in meetings with U.S. President Joe Biden and a cross-party delegation of Australian lawmakers visited Washington last year to lobby on behalf of Assange.

The continued legal battle over Assange has remained a persistent issue in the close relationship between Canberra and Washington, and the reception that the WikiLeak’s founder receives in Australia will be closely watched in the US.

Simon Jackson, former chief executive officer at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, says there will be no “high-fiving” as Assange returns to his homeland, with “no upside for the Albanese government to celebrate Assange as a hero.”

“Assange is a convicted felon. He is, to use the Australian vernacular, a ratbag,” he added.

When the dust begins to settle on a frantic three-day dart to freedom across the world, attention will likely turn to Assange’s next move.

One of his lawyers, Barry Pollack, told reporters outside the court that Assange “will be a continuing force for freedom of speech and transparency in government.” He also confirmed that Wikileaks will continue its operations.

“I very much hope in some ways that he takes the time in the coming weeks and months to recuperate and spend time with his kids, wife and family”, said independent journalist Antony Loewenstein, who has campaigned for Assange's release and has been a supporter of WikiLeaks since its inception in 2006.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Adam Hancock