Julian Assange returns to Australia after being freed in plea deal

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange returned to his homeland Australia aboard a charter jet on Wednesday, 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 criminal case of international intrigue, which had played out for years, came to a surprise end in a most unusual setting with Assange, 52, entering his plea in a U.S. district court in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands. The American commonwealth in the Pacific is relatively close to Assange’s native Australia and accommodated his desire to avoid entering the continental United States.

Assange was accused of receiving and publishing hundreds of thousands of war logs and diplomatic cables that included details of U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. His activities drew an outpouring of support from press freedom advocates, who heralded his role in bringing to light military conduct that might otherwise have been concealed from view and warned of a chilling effect on journalists. Among the files published by WikiLeaks was a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

Assange raised his right fist as he emerged for the plane and his supporters at the Canberra airport cheered from a distance. Dressed in the same suit and tie he wore during his earlier court appearance, he embraced his wife Stella Assange and father John Shipton who were waiting on the tarmac.

He was accompanied on the flights by Australian Ambassador to the United States Kevin Rudd and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Stephen Smith, both of whom played key roles in negotiating his freedom with London and Washington.

The flights were paid for by the “Assange team,” Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said, adding his government played a role in facilitating the transport.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told Parliament that Assange’s freedom, after he spent five years in a British prison fighting extradition to the U.S., was the result of his government’s “careful, patient and determined work.”“Over the two years since we took office, my government has engaged and advocated including at leader-level to resolve this. We have used all appropriate channels,” Albanese said.

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