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Julian Assange must ‘rediscover freedom’ after landing in Australia, says wife

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange embraces his wife Stella as he arrives in Canberra (Hilary Wardhaugh/PA)
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange embraces his wife Stella as he arrives in Canberra (Hilary Wardhaugh/PA)

Julian Assange needs time to “rediscover freedom” after arriving in his native Australia a free man, his wife has said.

The WikiLeaks founder flew into the country’s capital Canberra on Wednesday in the final act of an extraordinary few days following his dramatic release from a London prison.

He was met by wife Stella in an emotional reunion, embracing and kissing her after emerging from the plane.

At a press conference a short time later, Mrs Assange said her husband would not speak publicly until a “time of his choosing” because he “needs to recuperate”.

She said: “Julian needs time to recover, to get used to freedom.

“You have to understand what he’s been through.

“He needs time, he needs to recuperate.

“I ask you to give us space, to give us privacy. Let our family be a family.”

She added: “I want Julian to have that space to rediscover freedom.”

Stella Assange head and shoulders
Stella Assange during a press conference in Canberra (Hilary Wardhaugh/PA)

Earlier, supporters of Mr Assange had joined press from Australia and abroad at the perimeter of Canberra Airport as he landed, one holding a sign saying “Thanks Julian”.

The 52-year-old waved at them after disembarking, giving them a thumbs up and raising his fist in the air to applause and shouts of “welcome home”.

Among those greeting him was his father John Shipton, who hugged his son before he gave one final wave and entered a nearby building.

Mr Assange did not attend the press conference at the East Hotel in Canberra, which was briefly interrupted on a couple of occasions by noise from outside the room as press and supporters sought to gain entry and follow proceedings from the hotel lobby.

Mrs Assange said of her husband: “Julian wanted me to sincerely thank everyone.

“He wanted to be here.”

She said she had been “overcome with emotion” when the couple were reunited at the airport and called for her husband to be pardoned by the US government.

Mr Assange’s freedom followed a two-hour court appearance before a judge in the US territory of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific just after midnight, where he pleaded guilty to a single charge after the US dropped 17 other espionage charges against him.

Because of the five years he has spent in Belmarsh prison, mainly in solitary confinement, he was told he was free to leave.

Mr Assange left the UK on Monday evening and flew to Saipan via Bangkok after the plea deal was signed on June 19.

Speaking outside court after the hearing, Mr Assange’s US lawyer Barry Pollack said his prosecution was “unprecedented” and the WikiLeaks founder “suffered tremendously in his fight for free speech”.

Mr Pollack said: “The prosecution of Julian Assange is unprecedented in the 100 years of the Espionage Act, it has never been used by the United States to pursue a publisher, a journalist, like Mr Assange.

“Mr Assange revealed truthful, important and newsworthy information, including revealing that the United States had committed war crimes, and he has suffered tremendously in his fight for free speech, for freedom of the press, and to ensure that the American public and the world community gets truthful and important, newsworthy information.”

He added that they “firmly believe that Mr Assange never should have been charged under the Espionage Act”.

He said: “There was a very narrow agreed upon set of facts here and Mr Assange acknowledges that of course, he accepted documents from Chelsea Manning, and published many of those documents because it was in the world’s interest that those documents be published.

“Unfortunately, that violates the terms of the Espionage Act. That’s what we acknowledged today. We also said Mr Assange said very clearly that he believes there should be First Amendment protection for that conduct. But the fact of the matter is, as written, the Espionage Act does not have a defence for the First Amendment.”

Mr Pollack added that the court “determined that no harm was caused by Mr Assange’s publications”.

Jennifer Robinson, another of Mr Assange’s lawyers, said the case set “a dangerous precedent” which should be a “concern” to journalists and people around the world.

“The US is seeking to exercise extra-territorial jurisdiction over all of you without giving you constitutional free speech protections, and anyone who cares about free speech and democratic accountability should stand against it,” she said.

The plea deal brings to an end a criminal case of international intrigue and to the US government’s pursuit of a publisher whose secret-sharing website made him a cause celebre among many press freedom advocates who said he acted as a journalist to expose US military wrongdoing.

US prosecutors had repeatedly asserted that his actions broke the law and put the country’s national security at risk.

The leaks detailed thousands of civilian deaths as a result of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, and implicated American armed forces in the killing of innocent bystanders, including a father and two Reuters journalists during an air strike on Baghdad in July 2007.

Mr Assange will pay half a million US dollars (£394,000) for the chartered flight on which he left Stansted, accompanied by a WikiLeaks lawyer, a representative of the Australian government and a medic to check on his health.

A crowdfunding campaign has already raised over £310,000 towards the cost.

Mr Assange’s wife Stella said on Tuesday her relief at his release was coupled with anger that he had spent so long in prison.

Mrs Assange said: “It is hard to believe that Julian has been in prison for so long. It had become normalised. I am grateful to the people who made this possible but I am also angry that it ever came to this.”

She told the PA news agency that she travelled to Australia with the couple’s two young sons on Sunday when it became clear that Mr Assange would be freed.

Julian Assange at the plane door
Julian Assange stopped off in Thailand on his way back to Australia (Screengrab/WikiLeaks/PA)

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 United States to drop charges against Mr Assange.

“The public climate has shifted, and everyone understands that Julian has been the victim,” she said.

Mr Albanese spoke with Mr Assange on the phone after his plane landed to “welcome him home”.

He said Mr Assange told him it was “surreal” to have landed in Canberra and that he was now “looking forward to playing with his children”.

“I’m very pleased that this saga is over,” Mr Albanese told a press conference.

“There is nothing to be gained by the further incarceration of Mr Assange.

“This is the culmination of careful, persistent and determined advocacy.

“He’s been through a considerable ordeal.

“I was quite pleased that I was the first person here that he spoke with.”

Stella Assange
Stella Assange staged a long campaign for her husband’s freedom (Lucy North/PA)

Mr Assange had been locked in a lengthy legal battle to avoid being extradited to the US, which saw him live in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in 2012 before his detention in Belmarsh.

In a January 2021 ruling, then-district judge Vanessa Baraitser said Mr Assange should not be sent to the US, citing a real and “oppressive” risk of suicide, while ruling against him on all other issues.

Later that year, US authorities won a High Court bid to overturn this block, paving the way towards Mr Assange’s extradition.

Mr Assange was due to bring his own challenge to the High Court in London in early July after he was recently given the go-ahead to challenge the original judge’s dismissal of parts of his case.

His release from prison comes days ahead of his 53rd birthday on July 3.