Julian Assange free to go home after five years in high-security UK prison

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was released from a British prison and was making his way back to his home country Australia on Monday after his 12-year battle against extradition to the United States ended in a plea deal.

The controversial figure has spent the past five years in a high-security UK prison and nearly seven years before that holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, trying to avoid arrest that could have led to life imprisonment.

On Monday, Assange, 52, agreed to plead guilty to a felony charge related to his alleged role in one of the largest US government breaches of classified materials after his whistleblowing website published nearly half a million secret military documents relating to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The plea deal caps a long-running legal saga, allowing Assange to avoid prison in the US and return to Australia as a free man – but not until he has made a court appearance in a remote US territory in the Pacific.

Assange boarded a flight from London’s Stansted airport on Monday after being released on bail from prison, according to a statement from WikiLeaks on Tuesday.

“Julian Assange is free,” WikiLeaks said. “He left Belmarsh maximum security prison on the morning of 24 June, after having spent 1,901 days there.”

Traveling with him onboard the flight is Australia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Stephen Smith, the country’s prime minister said.

Under the terms of the agreement, US Justice Department prosecutors will seek a 62-month sentence – which is equal to the amount of time Assange served in the United Kingdom while he fought extradition.

The plea deal would credit that time served, allowing Assange to immediately return to Australia. The deal must still be approved by a federal judge.

Because Assange was resistant to setting foot in the continental US to enter his guilty plea, a judge will conduct the hearing and sentencing together on Wednesday in Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands, according to a letter filed by prosecutors.

The Pacific island chain is a US territory some 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) west of Hawaii and a US federal district court is based in the capital Saipan. The islands are also closer to Australia, where Assange is a citizen and is expected to return to after the court hearing, prosecutors said.

Assange was wanted by US authorities on espionage charges connected to Wikileaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of sensitive military and government documents supplied by former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 and 2011.

The US accused Assange of endangering the lives of confidential sources by releasing the unfiltered cables and had for years been seeking his extradition.

He faced 18 charges for his alleged role in the breach and faced a maximum of up to 175 years in prison. British authorities had sought reassurances from the US that he would not receive the death penalty.

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