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Julian Assange Returns to Australia After 12 Years Following US Plea Deal

CANBERRA, Australia – Cheers erupted from supporters gathered at Canberra Airport as Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, returned to his home country for the first time in 12 years. The unexpected return was facilitated by a plea deal signed off by a US judge on Wednesday morning.

Assange disembarked the aircraft to a crowd of jubilant supporters, waving as he walked across the tarmac. His wife, Stella, greeted him with a broad smile. Assange embraced her, lifting her off the ground before the pair shared a kiss.

“Julian wanted me to sincerely thank everyone. He wanted to be here. But you have to understand what he’s been through. He needs time, he needs to recuperate and this is a process,” Stella said at a press conference following Assange’s arrival.

With tears in her eyes, she paused several times to gather her emotions. “I ask you please, to give us space, to give us privacy, to find our place, to let our family be a family before he can speak again at a time of his choosing,” she added.

Earlier on Wednesday, Assange walked out of a courtroom in Saipan, a remote US Pacific territory in the Northern Mariana Islands. He raised one hand to a gaggle of the world’s press before departing by car for the airport to journey on to Australia.

Speaking outside the court, Assange’s US lawyer Barry Pollack highlighted Assange’s struggles. “He has suffered tremendously in his fight for free speech and freedom of the press,” Pollack stated. “The prosecution of Julian Assange is unprecedented in the 100 years of the Espionage Act. Mr. Assange revealed truthful, newsworthy information … 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.”

In a surprising turn of events, the 52-year-old Australian was released from a high-security prison in London on Monday afternoon and had already boarded a private jet to leave the United Kingdom before the world even knew of his agreement with the US government.

He appeared in a US courtroom on the Northern Mariana Islands to formalize the agreement, officially pleading guilty to conspiring unlawfully to obtain and disseminate classified information over his alleged role in one of the largest breaches of classified material in US military history.

“I am, in fact, guilty of the charge,” Assange told the court in Saipan.

Assange, known for his deep mistrust of the US, was hesitant about stepping foot in the continental US. Therefore, prosecutors asked for all proceedings to take place in a US federal court based in Saipan, which is located around 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) west of Hawaii.

Justice Department prosecutors explained that the court on the islands made logistical sense as it is closer to Australia, where Assange will ultimately travel following the conclusion of his legal battle.

Kevin Rudd, Australia’s Ambassador to Washington and former prime minister who helped facilitate negotiations with the US, watched proceedings in the courtroom.

At the start of the plea deal hearing, the judge reminded Assange that he was back in the US and that this court was the “smallest, youngest, and furthest from the nation’s capital.” Assange appeared relaxed in the courtroom, wearing a black jacket and brown tie, while seated next to his attorneys.

Asked by the judge, Honorable Ramona Manglona, to describe his actions, Assange said: “Working as a journalist, I encouraged my source to provide information that was said to be classified in order to publish that information. I believe that the First Amendment protected that activity… 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.”

In her sentencing, the judge said Assange was entitled to a credit of time served for his incarceration at a British prison.

“It appears that your 62 months imprisonment is fair and reasonable,” Manglona said. “You will be able to walk out of this courtroom a free man. I hope there will be some peace restored.”

The judge told Assange that “timing matters” and she would have been less inclined to accept a plea 10 years ago. She also noted there was no personal victim in this case — Assange’s action did not lead to any known physical injury.

For years, the US argued that Assange endangered lives and posed a threat to national security through his actions.

Following his release, the US Department of Justice stated that Assange is barred from returning to the US without permission, “pursuant to the plea agreement.”

Assange and WikiLeaks rose to global prominence in 2010 after a string of leaks from former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The website posted a video showing a US military helicopter firing on and killing two journalists and several Iraqi civilians in 2007. Later, it disclosed more than 90,000 classified Afghan war documents dating back to 2004.

In 2010, Assange was wanted in Sweden to answer questions over allegations of sexual assault, which he denied. He sought political asylum within the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012, where he remained for nearly seven years until his arrest in 2019.

The plea deal brokered with the US marks the final act of a 14-year legal drama that has spanned continents. Australian officials have been pushing diplomatic efforts for some time, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese reportedly raising Assange’s case during a visit to the White House last October.

Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, Albanese expressed relief at Assange’s return. “I am pleased that he is on his way home to Australia to reunite with his family,” Albanese said. “This outcome has been the product of careful, patient, and determined work. This is what standing up for Australians around the world looks like.”

Now that Assange has touched down in Australia, one of his first tasks will be to repay the government for his charter flight. According to an international campaign advocating for his release, Assange will owe $520,000 for the journey home. The campaign has launched an appeal for donations to cover these expenses and support his recovery.

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Patrick Zarrelli

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