Julian Assange has landed in Australia and has been reunited with family after accepting a plea deal that brought his 14-year legal saga to an end.

The WikiLeaks founder touched down in the Australian capital Canberra just after 7.30pm on Wednesday, before walking across the tarmac to embrace his wife, Stella Assange. Supporters who had braved the cold could be heard applauding as he arrived, with some cheering “we love you Julian” and “welcome home”.

Assange left a US court in the US Pacific island territory of Saipan a free man on Wednesday after pleading guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified defence documents. He was sentenced to time already served, due to time already served in Belmont prison in London.

His release ends a legal saga that spanned more than a decade, in which Assange spent five years in the high-security jail and seven years at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, battling extradition to the US, where he faced 18 criminal charges. If found guilty he faced a sentence of up to 175 years in prison.

Immediately after the three-hour hearing, the US government withdrew its extradition request from the UK, dropped all remaining charges pending in the US, and banned Assange from returning to the US without permission. Assange headed straight to the airport and arrived in Canberra on Wednesday evening local time.

Assange travelled to Australia aboard a private chartered Bombardier jet, with his legal team, the ambassador to the UK, Kevin Rudd, and the UK high commissioner, Stephen Smith.

WikiLeaks has said it will hold a press conference on Wednesday night.

At a press conference shortly after Assange landed, the prime minister, Anthony Albanese said he was “pleased to be the first person” to speak with Assange “immediately upon the wheels touching the ground”.

“His safe return to Australia, we know, means so much to his family. His wife Stella, his children, who he is looking forward to playing with like any dad and his parents, Christine and John,” he said.

“There was no purpose to be served by this ongoing incarceration. And can I say that when I spoke with Mr Assange tonight, he described it as a surreal and happy moment.”

Ahead of his arrival, Assange’s father John Shipton told media at Parliament House that he hopes Assange does “normal things” after he gets back. It will be the first time Assange has met his two sons he has with his wife outside prison.

Posting on X, Stella Assange asked supporters for help covering the “massive USD 520,000 debt” to the Australian government for the chartered flight – he was not allowed to fly on commercial airlines to Saipan and onward to Australia.

In parliament on Wednesday, Albanese said Australians would have different views about the plea deal, but overwhelmingly would support his release.

“Mr Assange’s case has dragged on for too long. I have said repeatedly that there was nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration, and I am pleased that he is on his way home to Australia to reunite with his family here,” Albanese said.

“Over the two years since we took office, my government has engaged and advocated, including at the leader level, to resolve this. We have used all appropriate channels.”

Albanese had taken up the issue with the US president, Joe Biden, and politicians from across Australia’s political spectrum last year went to Washington to lobby US decision-makers to free Assange.

“This is what standing up for Australians around the world looks like,” Albanese said.

“It means getting the job done, getting results and getting outcomes, having the determination to stay the course. And I’m very pleased that on this occasion, this has been a successful outcome that I believe, overwhelmingly, Australians did want to see.”

‘Julian Assange is on his way home’: Albanese on Wikileak founder’s return – video

WikiLeaks shared an image on X of Assange hugging his lawyer Jennifer Robinson after he was released, with Rudd smiling in the background. Assange made no comment to waiting media before or after he left the courtroom but Robinson thanked the Australian government and the global movement for the court outcome.

“It is a huge relief to his family, to his friends, to his supporters and to us and to everyone who believes in free speech around the world that he can now return home to Australia and be reunited with his family,” she told reporters outside court.

“I hope that the fact that we’ve been able to free Julian Assange today against all the odds and against one of the most powerful governments in the world will give hope to all journalists and publishers who are imprisoned, around the world.”

– with AAP

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