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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange lands in Australia after U.S. plea deal

The plane carrying Julian Assange, who has fought U.S. espionage charges for more than a decade for his whistleblowing efforts, landed in his homeland of Australia on Wednesday, according to a social media post from the WikiLeaks organization that he founded.

He was permitted to walk free after pleading guilty in a U.S. court in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific Ocean, to a felony charge for publishing U.S. military secrets.

According to documents from the U.S. court in Saipan, the largest island and capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, Assange pleaded guilty to one criminal count of conspiracy to obtain documents, writings and notes connected with the U.S. national defense and communicating these materials.

As part of the plea agreement, the U.S. is bound to withdraw its extradition request and has recommended a sentence equivalent to the time he already served in prison, with no additional fines issued.

"The chilling effect is the United States pursuing journalism as a crime," Assange's U.S. lawyer Barry Pollack said during a press briefing after the Saipan hearing. Pollack also warned that this sends a "chilling precedent."

He noted that Assange had acknowledged that he accepted and disclosed documents from Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, and that, "unfortunately, that violates the terms of the Espionage Act" — a federal law instituted shortly after the U.S. entered World War I that oversees the handling of information sensitive to U.S. national defense.

"Mr. Assange said very clearly 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 defense for the First Amendment," Pollack said.