WikiLeaks founder receives passionate welcome in Australia

Family, lawmakers gather in Canberra to welcome Assange home.

CANBERRA (Reuters): WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange landed to an ecstatic welcome in Australia on Wednesday after pleading guilty to violating U.S. espionage law in a deal that sets him free from a 14-year legal battle.

Assange disembarked from a private jet at Canberra airport just after 7:30 p.m. (0930 GMT), waving to waiting media and cheering supporters before passionately kissing his wife, Stella, and lifting her off the ground.

He embraced his father before entering the terminal building with his legal team.

Australia Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has lobbied for years to free Assange, said he had spoken to him by phone after his plane landed.

“I had a very warm discussion with him this evening, he was very generous in his praise of the Australian government’s efforts,” Albanese told a news conference.

“The Australian government stands up for Australian citizens, that’s what we do.”

Assange’s arrival ends a saga in which he spent more than five years in a British high-security jail and seven years in asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London battling extradition to Sweden on sexual assault allegations and to the U.S., where he faced 18 criminal charges.

Those charges stemmed from WikiLeaks’ release in 2010 of hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. military documents on Washington’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – one of the largest breaches of secret information in U.S. history.

During a three-hour hearing held earlier in the U.S. territory of Saipan, Assange pleaded guilty to one criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified national defence documents but said he had believed the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which protects free speech, 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,” he told the court.

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

Chief U.S. District Judge Ramona V. Manglona accepted his guilty plea, noting that the U.S. government indicated there was no personal victim from Assange’s actions.

She wished Assange, who turns 53 on July 3, an early happy birthday as she released him due to time already served in a British jail.

Comments are closed.