WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange landed on US soil on Wednesday to face a final court hearing under a plea deal expected to end years of legal drama and allow him to return to his native Australia as a free man.

AFP reporters saw a private jet carrying the 52-year-old touch down in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, the Pacific US territory where he is due in court later in the day.

He will plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to obtain and disseminate national defence information, according to a court document.

Assange was released Monday from a high-security British prison where he had been held for five years while he fought extradition to the United States, which sought to prosecute him for revealing military secrets.

He is expected to be sentenced to five years and two months in prison, with credit for the same amount of time he spent behind bars in Britain.

Assange’s wife Stella said he would be a “free man”, thanking supporters who have campaigned for his release for years.

“We weren’t really sure until the last 24 hours that it was actually happening,” she told BBC radio, saying she was “just elated”.

The court in the Northern Mariana Islands was chosen because of Assange’s unwillingness to go to the continental United States and because of its proximity to Australia, a court filing said.

Under the deal, Assange is due to return to Australia, where the government said his case had “dragged on for too long” and there was “nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration”.

Stella Assange said on X that her husband would have to repay the Australian government the $520,000 cost of the charter flight and urged supporters to donate cash.

Extradition Battle

The announcement of the deal came two weeks before Assange was scheduled to appear in court in Britain to appeal against a ruling that approved his extradition to the United States.

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. US President Joe Biden had been under growing pressure to drop the long-running case against Assange.

The Australian government made an official request to that effect in February and Biden said he would consider it, raising hopes among Assange supporters that his ordeal might end.

With AFP