Thanaporn Promyamyai with Selim Saheb Ettaba in Washington WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been released from prison in Britain and is set to face a final court hearing after reaching a plea deal with US authorities that brings to a close his years-long legal drama.
WikiLeaks said Assange was freed on bail from prison in London, where he has been held for five years as he fought extradition to the United States which sought to prosecute him for revealing military secrets.
He has agreed to plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to obtain and disseminate national defence information, according to a document filed in court in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific.
A charter plane flew the 52-year-old from London to Bangkok, where it made a scheduled stop to refuel.
AFP journalists saw it touch down at Don Mueang airport in the Thai capital at around 12:30 pm (0530 GMT).
From there it is scheduled to fly to Saipan, capital of the US territory where Assange is due in court on Wednesday morning.
He is expected to be sentenced to five years and two months in prison, with credit for the same amount of time spent behind bars in Britain.
Under the deal, he is due to return to his native Australia, where the government said his case had "dragged on for too long" and there was "nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration."
The publisher was wanted by Washington for publishing hundreds of thousands of secret US documents from 2010 as head of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.
Since then Assange became a hero to free speech campaigners and a villain to those who thought he endangered US security and intelligence sources.
US authorities wanted to put Assange on trial for divulging military secrets about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Assange was indicted by a US federal grand jury in 2019 on 18 counts stemming from WikiLeaks' publication of a trove of national security documents.
Former vice president Mike Pence slammed the plea deal on X as a "miscarriage of justice" that "dishonors the service and sacrifice of the men and women of our Armed Forces."
- Extradition battle -WikiLeaks released a short video of Assange speaking with people in what appeared to be an office before boarding a plane.
Assange's family expressed gratitude for his freedom, including his mother Christine Assange who said in a statement carried by Australian media that she was "grateful that my son's ordeal is finally coming to an end."
His wife Stella meanwhile thanked campaigners, writing on X that "words cannot express our immense gratitude."
Assange met his wife while he was holed up in Ecuador's London embassy, and then married her in a ceremony in prison. They now have two young children.
Announcement of the deal came two weeks before Assange was scheduled to appear in court in Britain to appeal against a ruling approving his extradition to the United States.
Assange had been detained in the high-security Belmarsh prison in London since April 2019.
He was arrested after spending seven years in Ecuador's London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced accusations of sexual assault that were eventually dropped.
The material he released through WikiLeaks included video showing civilians being killed by fire from a US helicopter gunship in Iraq in 2007. The victims included two Reuters journalists.
The United States has accused Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act. Supporters have warned this means he could be sentenced to 175 years in prison.
The British government approved his extradition in June 2022, but in a recent twist, two British judges said in May that he could appeal against the transfer.
The plea deal was not entirely unexpected. President Joe Biden had been under growing pressure to drop the long-running case against Assange.
In February the Australian government made an official request to this effect and Biden said he would consider it, raising hopes among Assange supporters that his ordeal might end.
On the streets of Sydney, Nish Veer, a 41-year-old IT business manager, told AFP that Assange had "did something that angered a lot of people, obviously... but after time you just go should anyone be held in that sort of way?"
John Blanco, 64, said he was "very happy" Assange was returning to Australia after so many years. "I think he's gone through hell, to be honest with you."
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