Robinson, the key lawyer who has acted for Assange in London for many years, also described the prosecution under the US Espionage Act as a grave threat to free speech.

In a key statement to critics of Assange who claim his revelations put lives at risk, Robinson cited the court decision on Wednesday as proof this was not so, given the judge said nobody had been harmed as a result of his activities.

Assange arrived in Australia after appearing in a courtroom in the Northern Mariana Islands, a United States commonwealth in the Pacific, earlier in the day, where he pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defence information.

Credit: Matt Golding

His arrival in Australia for the first time in 14 years brought a dramatic end to a legal saga that tested the boundaries of press freedom and required skillful lobbying by the Albanese government and Assange supporters to secure his release.

Albanese said at a press conference at 8pm, just as Assange disembarked from a chartered flight, that the release of Assange had taken years of diplomatic effort and showed the government was “not in a contest of machismo” because it worked quietly behind the scenes rather than talking in public about its negotiations with the US.

“I believe in standing up for Australian citizens,” he said of his talks with US president Joe Biden and the broader effort to settle the case.

Albanese acknowledged the strong opinions about Assange and did not take sides on the dispute about whether he was a journalist and had been unfairly pursued.

Julian Assange and his father John Shipton reunite at the airport.

Julian Assange and his father John Shipton reunite at the airport. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

While the prime minister welcomed Assange home, there are no plans for a public show of support in a joint press conference or other event together in coming days.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton remained silent in question time on Wednesday when Albanese spoke about Assange, while other Coalition frontbenchers have criticised the WikiLeaks founder this week and said his work had undermined the US and its allies.

Stella Assange told the BBC that her husband “will have to pay the Australian government US$520,000 ($777,000) back for the chartered flights” that brought him from London to Canberra via Bangkok and Saipan.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves the courthouse in the Northern Mariana Islands after pleading guilty to a felony charge.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves the courthouse in the Northern Mariana Islands after pleading guilty to a felony charge. Credit: Getty Images

She said Assange’s supporters had already raised more than half the sum required through a crowdfunding appeal.

The US Justice Department on Wednesday defended its six-year-long pursuit of Assange, accusing him of behaving differently to traditional journalists and putting individuals who helped the US government “at great personal risk” by not redacting their names.

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Assange will be banned from returning to the US without permission as a result of the conviction, the Justice Department said.

At his Mariana Islands plea, Judge Ramona Manglona said it was important to recognise that Assange had been jailed for 62 months in a London prison, roughly equivalent to the time US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning served for disclosing classified information about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to WikiLeaks.

“I hope there will be some peace restored,” she said, wishing Assange a “happy birthday” as his 53rd birthday falls next week.

Assange was originally charged with 18 felony counts, carrying a maximum prison sentence of 175 years.

The Justice Department said that, unlike traditional news organisations, “Assange and WikiLeaks disclosed many of the raw classified documents without removing any personally identifying information”.

“Assange’s decision to reveal the names of human sources illegally shared with him by Manning created a grave and imminent risk to human life,” the department said.

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