Wikileaks founder Julian Assange lands in Australia

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Julian Assange supporters celebrate his release and arrival in Australia outside Australia House in London on Wednesday

WIKILEAKS founder Julian Assange landed in Australia Wednesday morning, after walking free from a US court in Saipan.

He hugged his wife and father at the airport in Canberra, as a small group of supporters cheered his arrival.

Julian Assange had pleaded guilty in a US court under a deal allowing him to walk free following a 14-year legal battle.

He entered the formal plea to a single charge in the Northern Mariana Islands, an American territory in the Pacific, two days after leaving Belmarsh prison in the UK.

In return, he was sentenced to time already served and released to fly to his native Australia and be reunited with his family.

Assange arrived at court on Wednesday morning local time in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, alongside a team that included Australia’s ambassador to the US Kevin Rudd.

At the hearing, Assange admitted a felony charge of conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information.

‘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.

But he emphasised that he believed he would be protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which covers freedom of the press.

After the sentencing, Assange’s lawyer, Barry Pollack, said: ‘Wikileaks’s work will continue and Mr Assange, I have no doubt, will be a continuing force for freedom of speech and transparency in government.

‘He is a powerful voice and a voice that cannot and should not be silenced.’

Julian’s wife Stella told the Reuters news agency that they would seek a pardon for Assange.

She took to X, formerly Twitter, after he walked free to express her emotion. ‘I can’t stop crying,’ she wrote.

Assange punched the air, held his fist up and kissed his wife as he made his way across the tarmac at Canberra airport.

Shortly after Assange’s arrival, Australian PM Anthony Albenese addressed the media from Parliament House, saying he had spoken to Assange on the phone and welcomed him back to Australia.

Albanese, who had advocated for the charges to be dropped, said in a statement on Wednesday that he’d spoken with Assange, welcoming him home during a phone call.

Albanese also thanked the United States and United Kingdom for making Assange’s return possible.

He said: ‘As Prime Minister, I have been clear – regardless of what you think of his activities, Mr. Assange’s case had dragged on for too long. I have clearly and consistently – at every opportunity and at every level – advocated for Mr Assange’s case to be concluded.’

Supporters gathered at the East Hotel in Canberra, where Stella Assange and lawyers Jennifer Robinson and Barry Pollock addressed media. Robinson said Assange had told PM Albenese that he had ‘saved his life’.

Stella Assange thanked everyone who helped and supported the campaign and asked for their privacy to ‘let our family be a family’.

Jennifer Robinson said Australia ‘stood up’ to the US. She said: ‘This is a huge win for for Australia and for Australian democracy, this is a huge win for free speech, this is a huge win that Australia stood up to an ally and demanded the return of an Australian citizen.’

Robinson was asked about the argument that Assange put lives at risk and that what he published wasn’t in the public interest.

She replied: ‘Well, to start with – there’s no evidence of any actual harm. And that’s exactly what the US government acknowledged in court today in Saipan.

‘The public interest in those publications is clear. Evidence of war crimes, that the US had not disclosed the extent of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. The use of torture and other forms of human rights abuse around the world.

‘The fact that Julian has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year. So to suggest that this was not in the public interest – I don’t understand the basis in which they could possibly suggest that.’

Stella Assange was asked about what it was like seeing her husband again after all those years.

She said: ‘We embraced and I mean, I think you’ve seen the pictures. I don’t want to express in words what is obvious from the image.’

Asking for privacy, she added: ‘Julian needs time to recover. To get used to freedoms. Someone told me yesterday who had been through something similar, that freedom comes slowly. And I want Julian to have that space to rediscover freedom, slowly. And quickly.’

Asked if she would like to see Julian Assange pardoned, she said: ‘That precedent now can and will be used in the future against the rest of the press.

‘So it is in the interest of all of the press to seek for this current state of affairs to change through reform of the Espionage Act. Through increased press protections, and yes, eventually when time comes – not today – a pardon.’

Stella Assange warned freedom of the press is in a ‘dangerous place’ and the US should have dropped the case against Julian Assange.

She hoped the media ‘realise the danger of this US case against Julian, that criminalises, that has secured his conviction for newsgathering and publishing information that was true, that the public deserved to know.’

She stressed: ‘That would have been the only good outcome for the press in general if the US government had abandoned this case entirely. Now, you have… You have the press in … as vulnerable a position as Julian has been.’

Barry Pollack, part of Assange’s US legal team, described the case as a ‘prosecution that should’ve never been brought’.

He said it is unprecedented for the Espionage Act to be used to prosecute a journalist or publisher in the United States.

Pollack added that ‘no one should spend a day in prison for giving the public newsworthy and important information’.

Asked if WikiLeaks will continue to publish leaked papers, Stella Assange replied: ‘Look, he just arrived in Australia after being in a high security prison for over five years and… A 72-hour flight here or something like that. It’s premature.

‘Julian has to recover – that’s the priority. And the fact that Julian will always defend human rights, will always defend victims. He’s always done that. And that’s just part of who he is.

‘He’s deeply principled. And he remains deeply principled. And unafraid.

‘I think that he will be pardoned if the press unite to push back against this precedent. Because it affects all of you. It affects your future ability to warn the public and to publish without fear.’

Julian Assange’s UK solicitor Gareth Peirce said the case had ‘exposed major fault lines’ in human rights protections in both the US and UK.

In a statement, she said: ‘Watching with relief Julian Assange’s safe return to Australia, sincerely hoping the harshness and the scars of the past 12 years will gradually fade for him, understanding of the whole history of his case should not.

‘It has exposed major fault lines – not just within the UK/US extradition process itself, but in respect of human rights protections in both countries previously believed to be absolute.

‘The responsibility for addressing their manifestation in one extraordinary experience demands a continued commitment even though the legal case, happily, has now ended.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said it ‘welcomes Julian Assange’s release on 24 June as a significant victory for media freedom.

‘The dropping of 17 of the 18 charges that he faced avoids the criminalisation of the normal journalistic practices of encouraging sources to confidentially share evidence of wrongdoing and criminality.

‘It should also allow the object of one of the most overblown prosecutions in history to enjoy a normal life for the first time in 14 years, including 1,901 days in jail.

‘The IFJ has campaigned for the release of Assange since the publication of US charges against him in 2019. An IFJ observer has attended every day of his extradition hearings, providing reporting and commentary on proceedings.

‘And on 18 June the IFJ’s executive mounted a protest outside HMP Belmarsh in the UK where Assange was held – probably the last ever prison-gate protest for the Wikileaks founder.’

IFJ President Dominique Pradalié said: ‘Julian Assange is free. Victory for the right to inform and to be informed. Victory for journalists around the world.’

IFJ General secretary Anthony Bellanger added: ‘The attempted prosecution of Julian Assange cast a dark shadow over journalists, particularly those who cover national security issues. Had Assange gone to prison for the rest of his life, any reporter handed a classified document would fear facing a similar fate.’

Assange’s plea deal substantially lifts that threat – ‘although more than 500 journalists remain in prison around the world,’ says IFJ.