The end of an odyssey


Lerato Khumalo

The development marks the end of an odyssey: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has arrived on the Pacific island of Saipan, where he pleaded guilty.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has pleaded guilty in a US court in the Northern Mariana Islands to one count of leaking information for national defense purposes. The guilty plea was made as part of a deal that will allow Assange to return to his home country of Australia.

The 52-year-old arrived on the Pacific island of Saipan in the US territory of the Northern Mariana Islands on Wednesday (local time). He had previously made a stopover in Bangkok.

Immediately after arriving on Saipan, Assange was driven into court, wearing a black suit and smiling as he walked past security guards with his team and the Australian Ambassador to the United States, Kevin Rudd.

Assange was released from prison in the UK on Monday – the Australian had been incarcerated there since 2019. The 52-year-old pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to obtain and distribute secret US defense documents, according to documents from the US District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

The U.S. territory in the western Pacific was chosen because he did not want to travel to the U.S. mainland and because it is close to Australia, prosecutors said.

The WikiLeaks founder was due to be sentenced to 62 months in prison at the hearing in Saipan at 9 a.m. local time (equivalent to 1 a.m. German time), which he has already served.

The development marks the end of an odyssey in which Assange spent more than five years in a British maximum security prison and seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He fought against accusations of sex crimes in Sweden and against extradition to the United States, where his lawyers said he faced up to 175 years in prison. The risk that Assange could take his own life if extradited also played a role in the years-long legal battle.

For his supporters, Assange is a hero who stands up for free speech. His critics see the 52-year-old as a villain who has endangered the security of the USA and of intelligence sources. The Australian government has campaigned for Assange’s release and has raised the issue with the United States on several occasions.

“If an Australian is in a situation where they are detained for a long period of time without a legal solution, the government should stand up for them and that is what we have done,” Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles told ABC television on Wednesday. Marles added that Assange’s release would not worsen relations between Australia and close ally the United States.