Julian Assange arrives in Australia after being freed from prison following guilty plea

Ellen Ransley
The Nightly
Julian Assange kisses his wife after touching down in Australia.
Julian Assange kisses his wife after touching down in Australia. Credit: 7NEWS

Julian Assange has touched down in Australia a free man, bringing to an end an extraordinary legal saga that spanned 14 years.

The WikiLeaks founder arrived in Canberra shortly after 7.30pm on Wednesday, accompanied by US Ambassador Kevin Rudd, UK High Commissioner Stephen Smith, and his legal team, where he was reunited with his father John Shipton and wife Stella.

A throng of media and dozens of members of the public watched from about 100m away as the private jet carrying Assange touched down at the RAAF base.

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Before he disembarked, he spoke with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese about the “surreal and happy” moment of touching down, to thank him for “saving his life”, and to convey his thanks for the “diplomatic A-team”.

As he stepped off the plane, he waved at the crowd who had erupted into applause and cheers of “Well done, son“, and “You made it, welcome home” as he moved to embrace his family.

Hours earlier, in the Saipan district court in the little-known US Pacific territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, the WikiLeaks founder pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information.

The charge carried a maximum sentence of 10 years behind bars, but Chief Judge Ramona Manglona took into account the five years 52-year-old Mr Assange spent in the United Kingdom’s Belmarsh prison and told him he was free.

“Given the factual basis that accounts for the whole saga of events that constitutes the basis for this very serious espionage charge against you, I am in fact sentencing you to a period of time served,” the judge said.

Julian Assange's plane after touching down in Australia.
Julian Assange's plane after touching down in Australia. Credit: Supplied

Assange — who has spent the last five years in the high-security prison after nearly seven years holed up at London’s Ecuadorian embassy — told the court he believed the country’s first amendment, which protects free speech, had 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,” Assange told the court.

“I believed the first amendment protected that activity but I accept that it was … a violation of the espionage statute.”

The hearing brings an end to the US government’s years-long pursuit of the publisher, who leaked troves of classified documents related to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Guantanamo Bay, diplomatic cables and other highly classified information.

It sparked a lengthy pursuit by the US who sought to extradite him to face prosecution, which Assange repeatedly dodged.

In that time, Assange has divided public opinion over whether he is a hero of press freedom, or a criminal who endangered lives and exposed top secret US documents.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange waves as he arrives at Canberra Airport.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange waves as he arrives at Canberra Airport. Credit: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Speaking on Wednesday night, Mr Albanese said he had spoken with Assange, “immediately upon the wheels touching down”, noting that regardless of Australians’ views on his activities, “(this) case has dragged on for too long”.

“His arrival home ends a long-running legal process,” Mr Albanese said in a press conference.

“Earlier tonight, I was pleased to speak with Mr Assange to welcome him home, and had the opportunity to ask about his health and to have my first discussions with him. His safe return to Australia we know means so much to his family.

“This is the culmination of careful, patient and determined advocacy work that I am very proud of.

“It is yet another example of why mature, calibrated, and consistent engagement with our partners is the best way to get results in Australia’s national interest.”

Mr Albanese said there was “no purpose” served by his ongoing incarceration.

Assange’s lawyer later said that in his phone call with the Prime Minister, the whistleblower had told Mr Albanese he had “saved his life”.

Mr Albanese did not indicate that he would meet with Assange.

The Coalition’s foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham said the PM should “rule that out”.

“While it is good that the legal saga of Julian Assange is finally over, Assange is no hero and should not be feted as a hard-done-by political prisoner,” Senator Birmingham exclusively told The Nightly.

He said that unlike Cheng Lei, Sean Turnell, and Kylie Moore-Gilbert, Assange was not a “political prisoner”.

“The Assange saga went on so long because, at every turn, he avoided facing justice in an open court,” Senator Birmingham said.

Assange waves at supporters.
Assange waves at supporters. Credit: LUKAS COCH/AAPIMAGE

“Remember Assange skipping bail in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges by entering the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he dodged court for seven years? When Ecuador finally evicted him, Assange was imprisoned for breaching bail and, ultimately facing extradition to the US, he then spent five years pursuing appeal after appeal to once again avoid facing the charges against him.

“That was his right... Those very rights Assange had access to and exercised were not something available to Cheng Lei, Sean Turnell and Kylie Moore-Gilbert.

“He should ditch the victim card and ponder what might have happened if he had simply faced his day in court in Sweden and the US.”

Assange embraces his wife Stella.
Assange embraces his wife Stella. Credit: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Prior to the deal being struck, Assange faced 175 years in prison for 18 charges related to publishing hundreds of thousands of documents supplied by former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who herself was convicted of stealing and disseminating documents and videos to WikiLeaks and spent seven years in prison.

The US had accused Assange, who is now prohibited from travelling to the country without permission, of endangering the lives of confidential sources by releasing unfiltered cables.

US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy in a brief statement said Assange’s return to Australia “brings this longstanding and difficult case to a close”.

“The United States is grateful to the government of Australia for their commitment and assistance throughout this process,” she said.

Former United States Vice President Mike Pence, however, called the plea deal a “miscarriage of justice”.

“Julian Assange endangered the lives of our troops in a time of war and should have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he wrote on X.

“The Biden administration’s plea deal with Assange is a miscarriage of justice and dishonours the service and sacrifice of the men and women of our Armed Forces and their families.

“There should be no plea deals to avoid prison for anyone that endangers the security of our military or the national security of the United States.”

Assange disembarks from the plane.
Assange disembarks from the plane. Credit: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Speaking outside the court earlier, Assange’s long-time counsel Jennifer Robinson said it was a “historic day”, that brought ”to an end a case which has been recognised as the greatest threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century”.

“Finally, after 14 years of legal battles, Julian Assange can go home a free man,” she said.

“Julian has suffered for more than 14 years because of the risk of extradition to the United States. He faced 175 years in prison for publishing evidence of war crimes, human rights abuses, and US wrongdoing around the world.”

Ms Robinson thanked Mr Albanese for doing “what he needed to do to ensure Julian’s freedom”, but warned of the dangerous precedent of the outcome.

“Today, (Assange) pleaded guilty to an offence for having published information in the public interest.

“This is a very dangerous precedent. This prosecution sets a dangerous precedent that should be considered by journalists everywhere.”

His lawyer Barry Pollack said the US’ pursuit of Assange had been “unprecedented’.

“In the 100 years of the Espionage Act, it has never been used by the United States to pursue a publisher, a journalist, like Assange,” Mr Pollack said.

Julian Assange waves as he arrives at Canberra Airport.
Julian Assange waves as he arrives at Canberra Airport. Credit: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

“Assange revealed truthful, newsworthy information, including revealing that the United States had committed war crimes. He has suffered tremendously in his fight for free speech, for freedom of the press, and to ensure that the American public and the world get truthful and important newsworthy information.

“We firmly believe that Assange never should have been charged under the Espionage Act and engaged in an exercise that journalists engage in every day and we are thankful that they do.”

At home, Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, a long-time advocate of Assange and co-chair of the cross-parliamentary support group, said while it was crucial no one begrudge Assange for making the deal, there were potential ramifications.

“This is the sort of thing we’d expect in an authoritarian, totalitarian country. It is not what we would expect from the United States or a similar country like Australia,” he said.

“I think it sends a chill down the spines of journalists worldwide that this precedent has been set, and it means that there is more work to do to push for media freedom and protections for journalists so they can do their job.

“At the end of the day, Julian Assange is a Walkley award-winning Australian journalist who did his job.”

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