WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has arrived in his native Australia to be reunited with his family and start a new life as a free man.

He flew into the country’s capital Canberra on Wednesday in the final act of an extraordinary few days following his dramatic release from a London prison.

He was met by his wife Stella in an emotional reunion, hugging and kissing her after emerging from the plane.

The plane carrying WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives in CanberraJulian Assange has landed back in Australia (Hilary Wardhaugh/PA)

Supporters of Assange joined press from Australia and abroad at the perimeter of Canberra Airport as he landed, one holding a sign saying “Thanks Julian”.

The 52-year-old waved at them after disembarking, giving them a thumbs up and raising his fist in the air to applause and shouts of “Welcome Home”.

Among those greeting him was his father John Shipton, who hugged his son before he gave one final wave and entered a nearby building.

Assange’s freedom followed a two-hour court appearance before a judge in the US territory of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific just after midnight, where he pleaded guilty to a single charge after the US dropped 17 other espionage charges against him.

Because of the five years he has spent in Belmarsh prison, mainly in solitary confinement, he was told he was free to leave.

Assange left the UK on Monday evening and flew to Saipan via Bangkok after the plea deal was signed on June 19.

Speaking outside court after the hearing, Assange’s US lawyer Barry Pollack said his prosecution was “unprecedented” and the WikiLeaks founder “suffered tremendously in his fight for free speech”.

Mr Pollack said: “The prosecution of Julian Assange is unprecedented in the 100 years of the Espionage Act, it has never been used by the United States to pursue a publisher, a journalist, like Mr Assange.

“Mr Assange revealed truthful, important and newsworthy information, including revealing that the United States had committed war crimes, and he has suffered tremendously in his fight for free speech, for freedom of the press, and to ensure that the American public and the world community gets truthful and important, newsworthy information.”

He added that they “firmly believe that Mr Assange never should have been charged under the Espionage Act”.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, left, is escorted as he arrives at the United States courthouse, in Saipan, Mariana Islands, Wednesday, June 26 2024.WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, left, is escorted as he arrives at the United States courthouse, in Saipan, Mariana Islands (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

He said: “There was a very narrow agreed upon set of facts here and Mr Assange acknowledges that of course, he accepted documents from Chelsea Manning, and published many of those documents because it was in the world’s interest that those documents be published.

“Unfortunately, that violates the terms of the Espionage Act. That’s what we acknowledged today. We also said Mr Assange said very clearly that he believes there should be First Amendment protection for that conduct. But the fact of the matter is, as written, the Espionage Act does not have a defence for the First Amendment.”

Mr Pollack added that the court “determined that no harm was caused by Mr Assange’s publications”.

Jennifer Robinson, another of Assange’s lawyers, said the case set “a dangerous precedent” which should be a “concern” to journalists and people around the world.

“The US is seeking to exercise extra-territorial jurisdiction over all of you without giving you constitutional free speech protections, and anyone who cares about free speech and democratic accountability should stand against it,” she said.

The plea deal brings to an end a criminal case of international intrigue and to the US government’s pursuit of a publisher whose secret-sharing website made him a cause celebre among many press freedom advocates who said he acted as a journalist to expose US military wrongdoing.

US prosecutors had repeatedly asserted that his actions broke the law and put the country’s national security at risk.

The leaks detailed thousands of civilian deaths as a result of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, and implicated American armed forces in the killing of innocent bystanders, including a father and two Reuters journalists during an air strike on Baghdad in July 2007.

Assange will pay half a million US dollars (£394,000) for the chartered flight on which left Stansted, accompanied by a WikiLeaks lawyer, a representative of the Australian government and a medic to check on his health.

A crowdfunding campaign has already raised over £310,000 towards the cost.

Assange’s wife Stella said on Tuesday her relief at his release was coupled with anger that he had spent so long in prison.

Mrs Assange said: “It is hard to believe that Julian has been in prison for so long. It had become normalised. I am grateful to the people who made this possible but I am also angry that it ever came to this.”

She told the PA news agency that she travelled to Australia with the couple’s two young sons on Sunday when it became clear that Assange would be freed.

Julian Assange at the plane doorJulian Assange stopped off in Thailand on his way back to Australia (Screengrab/WikiLeaks/PA)

Mrs Assange said her husband’s release would not have happened without the intervention of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has been increasingly vocal in demands for the United States to drop charges against Assange.

“The public climate has shifted, and everyone understands that Julian has been the victim,” she said.

In a statement on Wednesday, Mr Albanese said he was “pleased” the WikiLeaks founder was on his way to “reunite with his family”.

“Over the two years since we took office, my Government has engaged and advocated, including at leader level, to resolve this,” he said.

“We have used all appropriate channels. This outcome has been the product of careful, patient, and determined work—work I am very proud of.”

He added the federal government will continue to provide Assange with consular assistance as he settles into life in Australia.

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

Stella AssangeStella Assange staged a long campaign for her husband’s freedom (Lucy North/PA)

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

Assange had been locked in a lengthy legal battle to avoid being extradited to the US, which saw him live in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in 2012 before his detention in Belmarsh.

In a January 2021 ruling, then-district judge Vanessa Baraitser said Assange should not be sent to the US, citing a real and “oppressive” risk of suicide, while ruling against him on all other issues.

Later that year, US authorities won a High Court bid to overturn this block, paving the way towards Assange’s extradition.

Assange was due to bring his own challenge to the High Court in London in early July after he was recently given the go-ahead to challenge the original judge’s dismissal of parts of his case.

His release from prison comes days ahead of his 53rd birthday on July 3.