Julian Assange pleads guilty in court on US Pacific island

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has 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 a British prison.

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

US officials were pursuing the 52-year-old over a huge disclosure of secret files in 2010, which they said put lives in danger.

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.

During the hearing, prosecutors said the WikiLeaks founder actively encouraged leaks of classified information. They said Assange told leakers that "top secret means nothing".

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."

Assange did not make any comments.

The US Department of Justice said in a statement following his sentencing that, due to his conviction, he was "prohibited from returning to the United States without permission".

However, his wife Stella told the Reuters news agency that they would seek a pardon for Assange.

Mrs Assange took to X, formerly Twitter, after he walked free to express her emotion.

"I can’t stop crying," she wrote.

Wednesday's hearing took place on the remote Pacific archipelago as the US commonwealth is much closer to Assange's native Australia than US federal courts in Hawaii or the continental US.

Assange spent the last five years behind bars at London's high-security Belmarsh Prison, fighting US attempts to extradite him.

In 2010, he faced separate charges of rape and sexual assault in Sweden, which he denied. He spent seven years hiding in Ecuador's London embassy, claiming the Swedish case would lead him to be sent to the US.

Swedish authorities dropped that case in 2019 and said that too much time had passed since the original complaint, but UK authorities later took him into custody. He was tried for not surrendering to the courts to be extradited to Sweden.

In the US, Assange was charged with conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information, following the massive Wikileaks disclosure in 2010.

Wikileaks had released a video from a US military helicopter which showed civilians being killed in the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

It also published thousands of confidential documents suggesting that the US military had killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents during the war in Afghanistan.

The revelations became a huge story, prompting reaction from all corners of the globe, and led to intense scrutiny of American involvement in foreign conflicts.

In exchange for pleading guilty to the single charge under the Espionage Act, Assange received credit for time spent incarcerated in the UK, meaning he will not be held in US custody.

Assange is flying to Australia's capital, Canberra, after the court hearing, touching down in his homeland on Wednesday evening local time.

Mrs Assange told the BBC on Monday that she was "elated" the legal saga was drawing to an end.

She said the priority for her husband was to “get healthy again”, be in touch with nature, and for the family to have “time and privacy”. The couple have two young children.

She also told the BBC: "We haven't had much time to talk about the future - the first thing is that he will have to pay the Australian government $500,000 (£394,000) back for the chartered flights."

Mrs Assange has launched a crowdfunding appeal to cover the costs, saying they have already raised more than half the sum required.

Assange's legal team and wife had long claimed the case against him was politically motivated, and called on US President Joe Biden to drop the charges.

In April, Mr Biden said that he was considering a request to do so from Australia, whose prime minister said the case had "dragged on for too long".

Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who previously described the plea deal as a "welcome development," said on Wednesday he would comment further "once legal proceedings conclude".

He added: "We have engaged and advocated Australia's interest using appropriate channels to support the positive outcome."

Map showing Julian Assange's journey from London to Australia

US prosecutors had originally wanted to try the Wikileaks founder on 18 counts - mostly under the Espionage Act - over the release of confidential US military records and diplomatic messages related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It said these endangered lives.

Wikileaks, which Assange founded in 2006, claims to have published over 10 million documents.

One of Assange's most well-known collaborators, US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison before then-president Barack Obama commuted that sentence in 2017.

During his long-running legal battles, Assange has rarely been seen in public and for years has reportedly suffered from poor health, including a small stroke in prison in 2021.