Emotional homecoming for WikiLeaks’ Assange

London — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrived in his home country of Australia a free man Wednesday after agreeing to a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors over espionage charges, ending a 14-year legal odyssey.

Supporters of the 52-year-old journalist and political activist welcomed his release, but said the prosecution sets a dangerous precedent for press freedom.

Assange received an emotional welcome as he arrived at Canberra Airport by private jet Wednesday morning. He was embraced by his wife Stella, and his father, John Shipton, before punching the air as he was cheered by a group of supporters gathered nearby.

“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,” Stella Assange told reporters at a press conference in Australia’s capital.

She thanked his supporters around the world.

“It took millions of people. It took people working behind the scenes. People protesting on the streets for days and weeks and months and years. And we achieved it,” she said.

Assange spends years in prison

Assange spent more than five years in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison as he fought a legal battle over extradition to the United States.

Britain’s High Court finally ruled in May that he could appeal the extradition order. That decision prompted the U.S. Department of Justice, British and Australian authorities, and Assange’s legal team to expedite negotiations on a deal in which Assange pleaded guilty to one charge of espionage.

He was flown Monday evening from London to the U.S. Pacific territory of Saipan, where a brief hearing at a U.S. District Court on Tuesday concluded the prosecution.

Assange was sentenced to the equivalent of the time he had already spent in prison and was free Wednesday morning.

Defense criticizes US prosecutors

Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, criticized U.S. prosecutors’ pursuit of a conviction.

“In order to win his freedom, Julian pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit espionage for publishing evidence of U.S. war crimes, human rights abuse and U.S. wrongdoing around the world. This is journalism. This is the criminalization of journalism,” said Robinson.

“And while the plea deal does not set a judicial precedent — it’s not a court decision — the prosecution itself sets a precedent that can be used against the rest of the media,” Robinson said at the press conference in Canberra on Wednesday.

‘Democracy demands this’

U.S. prosecutors charged Assange in 2019 with 17 counts of espionage and one count of hacking, relating to the publication of stolen diplomatic cables covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Wikileaks said the material revealed abuses by the U.S. military. Campaigners for press freedom say Assange was simply doing his job.

“Essentially what he does is what all journalists want to do: expose incompetence, expose wrongdoing and hold the power to account. Because essentially, democracy demands this. I mean, without this, we wouldn’t have democracy,” said Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar, a senior lecturer in journalism at City, University of London.

US State Department defends US’ action

The U.S. Department of Justice has not yet commented on the plea deal. The State Department defended the United States’ actions.

“I do think it is important when we talk about Julian Assange to remind the world that the actions for which he was indicted and for which he has now pled guilty are actions that put the lives of our partners, our allies and our diplomats at risk, especially those who work in dangerous places like Afghanistan and Iraq,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters on Wednesday.

“The documents they published gave identifying information of individuals who were in contact with the State Department that included opposition leaders, human rights activists around the world, whose positions were put in some danger because of their public disclosure,” Miller added. “It also chilled the ability of American personnel to build relationships and have frank conversations with them.”

Australian PM lobbies for release

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who personally lobbied U.S. President Joe Biden to allow Assange’s release, welcomed the plea deal.

“Regardless of your views about his activities — and they will be varied — Mr. Assange’s case has dragged on for too long. I have said repeatedly that there was nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration.

“We have used all appropriate channels. This outcome has been the product of careful, patient and determined work, work I am very proud of,” Albanese told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Supporters say they’ll seek pardon

Assange spent seven years in self-imposed confinement in Ecuador’s embassy in London from 2012, as he evaded unrelated rape charges filed by Swedish prosecutors, which were later dropped. Assange said he always believed the U.S. was seeking his extradition.

He was arrested by British authorities for breach of bail after the Ecuadorian Embassy ejected him in 2019. Assange was held in Belmarsh Prison as he fought U.S. attempts to secure his extradition.

Assange’s supporters say they will seek a full pardon of his espionage conviction and have vowed to fight for the principle of press freedom.

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