WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (centre) sits in a vehicle at a location given as Bangkok in this screengrab from a video released to social media on June 25, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

SYDNEY: 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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Saipan is the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands (NMI), a US commonwealth in the western Pacific which begins roughly 70km (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.

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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 9am local time on Wednesday (2300 GMT Tuesday).


Assange’s wife Stella said he would be a “free man” after the judge signed off on the plea deal, thanking supporters who have campaigned for his release for years.

“I’m just elated. Frankly, it’s just incredible,” she told BBC radio.

“We weren’t really sure until the last 24 hours that it was actually happening.”

She urged supporters to monitor her husband’s flight on plane-tracking websites and to follow the “AssangeJet” hashtag, saying in a post on social media platform X “we need all eyes on his flight in case something goes wrong”.

The court in the Northern Mariana Islands was chosen because of Assange’s unwillingness to go to the continental United States and because of the territory’s proximity to his native 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.


Assange was wanted by Washington for releasing hundreds of thousands of secret US documents from 2010 as head of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.

Since then he has become a hero to free speech campaigners and a villain to those who thought he had endangered US security and intelligence sources.

US authorities wanted to put Assange on trial for divulging military secrets about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He was indicted by a US federal grand jury in 2019 on 18 counts stemming from WikiLeaks’ publication of a trove of national security documents.

The United Nations hailed Assange’s release, saying the case had raised “a series of human rights concerns”.

Assange’s mother Christine Assange said in a statement carried by Australian media that she was “grateful that my son’s ordeal is finally coming to an end”.

But former US vice president Mike Pence slammed the plea deal on X as a “miscarriage of justice” that “dishonors the service and sacrifice of the men and women of our Armed Forces”.


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 3,000km (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.”


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.


Dotted with golf courses and ringed by sandy beaches, Saipan is home to most of the Northern Mariana’s residents.

Roughly 20km (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.


US prosecutors said Assange has agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified U.S. national defence 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.