Why is Julian Assange flying to the remote Pacific island of Saipan?

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Better known for its sandy beaches and Second World War wrecks, the tropical Pacific island of Saipan will soon host the final act of Julian Assange’s 14-year legal odyssey.

Assange is en route to a courtroom on the island where he is expected to plead guilty on Wednesday to a single criminal charge in a plea deal that will see him walk free and return home to Australia.

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Where is Saipan?

Saipan is the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands (NMI), a US commonwealth in the western Pacific which begins roughly 70 km (44 miles) north of Guam and stretches across 14 islands.

Like territories such as Guam or Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands are part of the US without the full status of a state.

The roughly 51,000 residents are US citizens but cannot vote in presidential elections. Crucially, some, like Saipan, also host US district courts.

Assange will appear in court at 9 a.m. local time on Wednesday (2300 GMT Tuesday)

Why is Assange heading there?

US prosecutors said Assange wanted to go to a court close to his home of Australia but not on the continental United States.

Saipan has the advantage of being relatively close to Assange’s home of Australia, roughly 3,000 km (1,800 miles) south. Hawaii is more than twice as far away.

“He has to front up to charges that have been brought under US law,” said Emily Crawford, a professor at the University of Sydney’s law school.

“It had to be US territory but it had to be the US territory closest to Australia that wasn’t a US state like Hawaii.”

Saipan and the United States

After time as a colony of Spain, Germany and then Japan, the United States took control of the island in World War Two.

After decades under US control, residents in 1975 voted to join the United States as a territory. The territory has a permanent delegate in the US House of Representative, although they cannot vote.

Popular tourist destination open to China

Dotted with golf courses and ringed by sandy beaches, Saipan is home to most of the Northern Mariana’s residents. Roughly 20 km (12 miles) long, it only takes an hour to traverse the island.

The site of the bloody Battle of Saipan during World War 2, the island and its surroundings are dotted with memorials and wrecks popular with divers.

Tourism is the mainstay of the economy and it is popular with Korean and Chinese tourists. It is the only part of the United States that Chinese citizens can enter without a visa.

That unique status has opponents in Congress, who worry about the risk of espionage by Chinese nationals.

What happens next for Assange?

US prosecutors said Assange has agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified US national defense documents in exchange for a sentence of 62 months already served.

If the judge approves his plea, Assange is expected to return to Australia after the hearing, US prosecutors said.

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