Assange to land in Australia for first time since jail

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is set to touch down on home soil for the first time in more than a decade after pleading guilty to a single US espionage charge.

For almost 15 years the Australian has been evading US authorities seeking to bring him to American soil on spying charges after he leaked troves of secret state information.

He spent almost seven years holed up in Ecuador's London embassy before being detained at a maximum security prison in the UK where he fought his extradition.

Julian Assange leaves court in Saipan
Julian Assange is flying to Australia after pleading guilty to a single charge in a US court. (AP PHOTO)

On Wednesday the 52-year-old secured his freedom by pleading guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified US national defence documents and was sentenced to 62 months - time he has already served.

A few hours later he left court a free man and boarded a chartered flight bound for Canberra with US ambassador Kevin Rudd and UK High Commissioner Stephen Smith.

He is set to land on Wednesday evening and is expected to make a public statement upon touchdown.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he was satisfied with what his government had achieved for Assange.

"Mr Assange's case has dragged on for too long, I have said repeatedly that there was nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration," he said during Question Time on Wednesday.

"This is what is standing up for Australians around the world looks like: it means getting the job done, getting results and getting outcomes.

"I am very pleased that, on this occasion, this has been a successful outcome that I believe, overwhelmingly, Australians did want to see."

A plane carrying Julian Assange prepares to fly to Australia.
A plane carrying WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange prepares to take off from Saipan for Australia. (AP PHOTO)

Mr Albanese directly raised the issue with US President Joe Biden, and in September politicians from across Australia's political spectrum converged on Washington to lobby US decision-makers.

Opposition finance spokeswoman Jane Hume said Assange was "no hero" of hers, but welcomed his return.

"We're very pleased to see him returned to Australia, but I don't think that hero worship is an appropriate response," she said.

"He put lives in danger, not just of counter-intelligence agents in the US, but also of innocent and helpful Iraqi and Afghani citizens who were helping coalition forces."

After the hearing, Assange's lawyer Barry Pollack said the court on Wednesday "determined that no harm was caused by Mr Assange's publications".

Jennifer Robinson, another leading member of his legal team, said the outcome was a "huge relief" and she thanked the Australian government and her client's supporters.

"I hope that the fact that we've been able to free Julian Assange today, against all the odds and against one of the most powerful governments in the world, will give hope to all journalists and publishers who are imprisoned," she told reporters outside court.

Portrait of Julian Assange carried during a protest
Supporters of Julian Assange celebrate his release but critics say the WikiLeaks founder is no hero. (Darren England/AAP PHOTOS)

For his supporters, it was a moment of jubilation.

"It's a great victory for freedom of expression and also justice," Australian Assange Campaign legal adviser Greg Barns SC told AAP.

"Julian faced the prospect of over 170 years in a US jail if he'd been convicted of the charges for which the Americans were seeking to extradite him."

Assange's family are also celebrating his release, with his father John Shipton praising the Australian government for its efforts.

"Having Julian home, to an ordinary life, after 15 years of incarceration in one form or another - house arrest, jail and asylum in an embassy - is pretty good news," he told the ABC.

According to Reuters, Assange told the court hearing that he believed his work would be protected by the First Amendment's press freedom protections.

"But I accept that it was ... a violation of the espionage statute," he said.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who was part of the Australian delegation to Washington, was thrilled that Assange was returning home but warned the case set an "alarming" precedent for other journalists.

"It sends a chill down the spine of journalists worldwide ... and it means out there is more work to do to push for media freedom and protections for journalists," he told reporters.

with Reuters