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Saipan, placid island setting for Assange’s last battle, is briefly mobbed — and bemused by the fuss

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (AP) — It was a peculiar setting to the final act in a legal drama that has now spanned the globe: a rural Western Pacific island, where visitors are usually tourists — attracted by laid-back resorts, snorkeling, diving and golf — and the furthermost reach of the United States.

When Julian Assange stepped from a car Wednesday to enter the Saipan courthouse, from which he would emerge hours later a free man, it was against a backdrop that could have adorned a travel brochure. Palm trees waved gently and verdant hills stood against a bright blue sky.

If the location felt bizarre to Assange, his sudden arrival — along with dozens of reporters from news outlets across the world — was equally startling to the 43,000 residents of the largest island and capital of the Northern Marianas, a territory of the United States. Fueled by tourism, Saipan’s economy is struggling to rebound after the coronavirus pandemic and a devastating typhoon in 2018, with a declining number of direct flights to the island vexing the local travel industry.

Near the courthouse where Assange’s spectacle unfolded, Hitomi Matagolai, a wedding planner, had come to windsurf off the beach because her business was slow.

“The hearing was not like, talk of the town here and people are not all that interested,” she said. “People here have more important things to worry about, like their work, and that’s what we talk about.”

The so-called “Caribbean of the Western Pacific” has traditionally been a vacation spot for Japanese, Korean and Chinese tourists escaping wintry weather at home, said Mark Rabago, editor of the Saipan Tribune, a weekday newspaper.

“We haven’t had this kind of publicity since the Miura case 15 years ago,”