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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange freed by U.S. court after guilty plea

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (Reuters) -- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange walked free on Wednesday from a court on the U.S. Pacific island territory of Saipan after pleading guilty to violating U.S. espionage law, in a deal that will see him return home to Australia.

His release ends a 14-year legal saga in which Assange spent more than five years in a British high-security jail and seven years in asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, battling extradition to the U.S., where he faced 18 criminal charges.

During the three-hour hearing, Assange pleaded guilty to one criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified national defense documents but said he had believed the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which protects free speech, shielded his activities.

"Working as a journalist I encouraged my source to provide information that was said to be classified in order to publish that information," he told the court.

"I believed the First Amendment protected that activity but I accept that it was ... a violation of the espionage statute."

Chief U.S. District Judge Ramona V. Manglona accepted his guilty plea and released him due to time already served in a British jail.

"We firmly believe that Mr. Assange never should have been charged under the Espionage Act and engaged in (an) exercise that journalists engage in every day," his U.S. lawyer, Barry Pollack, told reporters outside the court.

WikiLeaks' work would continue, he said.

His U.K. and Australian lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, thanked the Australian government for its years of diplomacy in securing Assange's release.

"It is a huge relief to Julian Assange, to his family, to his friends, to his supporters and to us and to everyone who believes in free speech