Julian Assange arrives at court on US island for hearing to confirm freedom

Julian Assange arrives at a court on the island of Saipan. Credit: AP

Julian Assange has arrived at a court in the US territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, where he is due to plead guilty to one charge related to his alleged role in the largest breaches of classified material.

Wikileaks founder Assange agreed the plea deal with US prosecutors to avoid going to prison in the United States.

He was released from British custody at Belmarsh prison on Monday morning, before boarding a private charted plane to Saipan - a US commonwealth island - in the Pacific Ocean.

His court appearance is taking place on Wednesday morning, before he is expected to travel on to Australia.

The plane carrying Julian Assange lands in Thailand

Mr Assange's brother, Gabriel Shipton, told ITV News on Tuesday that he had been "overwhelmed" and "overjoyed" by the news of his release, and that he was being inundated by messages of support.

Mr Shipton said his brother still had a "couple more hoops" before he would arrive in his home country.

He said he had always "kept his faith" that his brother would be free and that was what allowed him and the people around him to stay "in the fight".

Mr Shipton said when he last spoke to his brother, Mr Assange was "excited and anxious" about boarding the plane home.

In a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter, just after midnight on Tuesday, the official WikiLeaks account said Assange was released from Belmarsh Prison on Monday morning “after having spent 1,901 days there”.

The statement continued: “He … was released at Stansted airport during the afternoon, where he boarded a plane and departed the UK.

“This is the result of a global campaign that spanned grass-roots organisers, press freedom campaigners, legislators and leaders from across the political spectrum, all the way to the United Nations.

“This created the space for a long period of negotiations with the US Department of Justice, leading to a deal that has not yet been formally finalised.”

He said he expected Mr Assange would spend some time recovering once back in Australia as the years in confinement had had a negative impact on his health.

During his time in Belmarsh, Mrs Assange warned numerous times that her husband's mental health had deteriorated and he was at risk of taking his own life if deported.

Mr Assange also requested to be released from Belmarsh during the pandemic, with his lawyers saying due to repeated respiratory tract infections and heart problems he was more at risk from Covid.

Mr Assange was looking forward to listening to birds in the Australian outback and swimming in the ocean once home, Mr Shipton said.

He said "the majority of people" supported Mr Assange's freedom and that was why his release had been possible, citing specifically the backing of Pope Francis, and the Australian and Brazilian governments.

Mr Assange's wife Stella told the BBC she was "elated" following her husband's release.

She said: "I mean, I’m just elated. Frankly, it’s just incredible. It feels like it’s not real."

Julian Assange on the privately chartered jet. Credit: AP

She said it had been touch-and-go if the deal would be reached, but after a "non-stop" 72 hours, she said her husband would now "be a free man" once a US judge signs the deal.

She said that she travelled to Australia with the couple’s two young sons, Gabriel and Max, on Sunday when it became clear that Mr Assange would be freed.

Mr Assange's sons had not been told their father had been released and the family was trying to keep as much information from them as possible until the right time, she added.

Mrs Assange said her husband’s release would not have happened without the intervention of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has been increasingly vocal in demands for the US to drop charges against Assange.

Timeline of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange

  • 2006: Julian Assange helps create WikiLeaks with a group of dissident activists and mathematicians.

  • 2010: WikiLeaks publishes a quarter of a million US military and diplomatic documents revealing American espionage against its allies and the UN as well as exposing corruption in countries across the world.

  • 2010: Assange contests a request from Sweden to extradite him from the UK to investigate accusations of sexual offences made while he visited the country. Assange claims the move is designed to make it easier for him to be extradited to the US where he was wanted for the release of classified documents.

  • 2012: Assange takes up residence in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and the country later grants him asylum and says he can stay there indefinitely. This breaches his bail agreement with British authorities and a warrant is issued for his arrest. He would not leave the building for seven years, but while he was there he fathered two children with his partner Stella Moris.

  • April 2019: Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno says his country's patience had "reached its limit" and revoked Assange's asylum after photos emerged on WikiLeaks linking the president to a corruption scandal. Assange is arrested by the Metropolitan Police soon after and Moreno labels him a "spoiled brat" after his detention.

  • May 2019: Assange is remanded in Belmarsh prison where he is expected to serve 25 weeks for breaching his bail conditions. He is soon indicted on 17 charges by the US relating to the Espionage Act.

  • June 2024: After years of fighting what appeared to be a losing battle against extradition to the US, it emerges Assange had reached a deal with prosecutors. He is released from Belmarsh and departs for his home country, Australia.

Assange's father John Shipton said he felt "elated" about his son's release, saying he "never gave up hope, never collapsed into despair that this day would arrive."

The court documents say that Mr Assange will not face any more prison time, considering he spent five years in a high-security prison in the UK.

Mr Albanese, who has been lobbying for the US to end its prosecution of Mr Assange, told his parliament that an Australian envoy had flown with the WikiLeaks founder from London.

“Regardless of the views that people have about Mr Assange’s activities, the case has dragged on for too long. There’s nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia,” Mr Albanese added.

WikiLeaks applauded the announcement of the deal, saying it was grateful for "all who stood by us, fought for us, and remained utterly committed in the fight for his freedom".

The deal will only be fully in place after it is signed off by the US judge.

The hearing is taking place in Saipan because of Assange’s opposition to travelling to the continental US and the court’s proximity to Australia, prosecutors said.

Mrs Assange said the chartered flight had cost $500,000 (£394,000) and they planned to start fundraising to pay for it.

The WikiLeaks founder had faced 18 counts from a 2019 indictment for his alleged role in the breach that his supporters said carried a maximum sentence of up to 175 years in prison.

The US had been prosecuting the WikiLeaks founder over an alleged conspiracy to obtain and disclose confidential military records after the publication of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some of the war files were supplied by former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 and 2011.

Stella Assange, Julian Assange's wife issued a video statement about her husband's release

President Biden said last year that he was "considering" the possibility of a request from Australia to drop its case to drop its case to prosecute the Wikileaks founder.

The White House was not involved in the decision to resolve Assange’s case, according to a White House official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Last month, Mr Assange won his bid at the High Court which ruled Assange had the right to appeal his final challenge against extradition to the United States.

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