Australian leaders celebrate Assange’s freedom but opposition says he is ‘no martyr’

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Julian Assange spent his first night in 14 years as a free man back at home in Australia as the conservative opposition on Thursday cautioned the government against hailing the WikiLeaks founder as a hero.

Assange landed in Australia to an ecstatic welcome on Wednesday evening after pleading guilty to violating the US Espionage Act. He was then freed by a US court on the remote Pacific island of Saipan, having served more than five years in a British high-security jail.

His wife, Stella Assange, said it was too soon to say what her husband would do next and requested privacy for him.

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“Julian plans to swim in the ocean every day. He plans to sleep in a real bed. He plans to taste real food, and he plans to enjoy his freedom,” she told reporters on Thursday.

Assange’s supporters and free speech advocates view him as a victim because he exposed US wrongdoing and potential crimes, including in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, when WikiLeaks published thousands of classified military documents and diplomatic cables in 2010.

However, the US government has long said his actions were reckless and by publishing the names of government sources he had put agents’ lives at risk.

Assange has not spoken publicly since being released. Overnight a judge in the US state of Virginia formally dismissed all charges outstanding against him.

Australian lawmakers had called for Assange’s release for several years, and his case was a rare point of tension in bilateral relations with the United States.

“For some time now, the incarceration of Julian Assange was a thorn in the side of that relationship, it was just niggling away on the margins,” said independent lawmaker Andrew Wilkie, co-chair of a parliamentary committee that advocated for Assange’s release.

“That has now been fixed, so I now see reason to be very optimistic about the bilateral relationship. That thorn has been pulled out,” he told reporters.

Assange, who had holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for seven years before going to jail, had battled extradition to Sweden on sexual assault allegations as well as to the US, where he faced 18 criminal charges tied to WikiLeaks’ release of the classified US documents.

‘No Martyr’

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who supported Assange’s release years before taking office in 2022, welcomed him home in a phone call. He said he “had a very warm discussion” with Assange.

However, the conservative opposition raised concerns about portraying Assange as a hero after he spent more than a decade trying to avoid prosecution and then pleaded guilty to one criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified national defense documents.

The opposition leader in the Senate, Simon Birmingham, welcomed Assange’s release but posted on X that “he’s no martyr and was never a political prisoner denied access to justice.”

He cautioned Albanese against meeting Assange and said the release could strain Australia’s ties with the United States. Foreign Minister Penny Wong told ABC Radio Assange’s release posed no threat to Australia-US ties.

James Paterson, the opposition’s home affairs spokesperson, told Sky News Assange had evaded lawful extradition requests by hiding in the Ecuadorean embassy and used his legal rights in the UK to challenge it over many years.

“He is now someone who’s pled guilty to very serious national security offences, which are not just offences against the United States. They’re offences against the Five Eyes intelligence gathering alliance, including Australia,” he said.

The US State Department on Wednesday said its involvement in the resolution of Assange’s case was very limited and reiterated its position that his actions had put lives at risk, although the US judge who accepted his guilty plea said there had been no personal victim.

The White House was not in any way involved in the case, national security spokesman John Kirby said, adding it was a Department of Justice matter.

Read more:

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Australian PM says ‘very pleased’ by end to Assange ‘saga’

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