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SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange pleaded guilty to obtaining and publishing U.S. military secrets Wednesday in a deal with Justice Department prosecutors that secures his liberty and concludes a drawn-out legal saga that raised divisive questions about press freedom and national security.

The criminal case of international intrigue, which had played out for years in major world stages of Washington and London, came to a surprise end in a most unusual setting with Assange, 52, entering his plea in a U.S. district court in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands. The American commonwealth in the Pacific is relatively close to Assange's native Australia and accommodated his desire to avoid entering the continental United States.

The deal required the iconoclastic internet publisher to admit guilt to a single felony count but also permitted him to return to Australia without any time in an American prison. The judge sentenced him to the five years he'd already spent behind bars in the United Kingdom, fighting extradition to the United States on an Espionage Act indictment that could have carried a lengthy prison sentence in the event of a conviction. He was holed up for seven years before that in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

He smiled slightly as U.S. District Judge Ramona Manglona imposed the sentence, pronouncing him a ''free man."

The conclusion enables both sides to claim a degree of satisfaction. The Justice Department, facing a defendant who had already served substantial jail time, was able to resolve — without trial — a case that raised thorny legal issues and that might never have reached a jury at all given the plodding pace of the extradition process. Assange, for his part, signaled a begrudging contentment with the resolution, saying in court that though he believed the Espionage Act contradicted the First Amendment, he accepted the consequences of soliciting classified information from sources for publication.

Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange's lawyers, told reporters after the hearing that the case ''sets a dangerous precedent that should be a concern to journalists everywhere.''

''It's a huge relief to Julian Assange, to his family, to his friends, to his supporters and to us — to everyone who believes in free speech around the world — that he can now return home to Australia and be reunited with his family,'' she said.

Assange arrived at court in a dark suit, with a tie loosened around the collar, after flying from Britain on a charter plane accompanied by members of his legal team and Australian officials, including the top Australian diplomat in the U.K.

Inside the courthouse, he answered basic questions from Manglona, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, and appeared to listen intently as terms of the deal were discussed.

He appeared upbeat and relaxed during the hearing, at times cracking jokes with the judge. While signing his plea agreement, he made a joke about the 9-hour time difference between the U.K. and Saipan. At another point, when the judge asked him whether he was satisfied with the plea conditions, Assange responded: ''It might depend on the outcome,'' sparking some laughter in the courtroom.

''So far, so good,'' the judge responded.

The plea deal, disclosed Monday night in a sparsely detailed Justice Department letter, represents the latest — and presumably final — chapter in a court fight involving the eccentric Australian computer expert who has been celebrated by supporters as a transparency crusader but lambasted by national security hawks who insist that his conduct put lives at risks and strayed far beyond the bounds of traditional journalism duties.

The criminal case brought by the Trump administration Justice Department centers on the receipt and publication of hundreds of thousands of war logs and diplomatic cables that included details of U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Prosecutors alleged that he teamed with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to obtain the records, including by conspiring to crack a Defense Department computer password, and published them without regard to American national security. Names of human sources who provided information to U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were among the details exposed, prosecutors have said.

But his activities drew an outpouring of support from press freedom advocates, who heralded his role in bringing to light military conduct that might otherwise have been concealed from view and warned of a chilling effect on journalists. Among the files published by WikiLeaks was a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

The indictment was unsealed in 2019, but Assange's legal woes long predated the criminal case and continued well past it.

Weeks after the release of the largest document cache in 2010, a Swedish prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Assange based on one woman's allegation of rape and another's allegation of molestation. Assange has long maintained his innocence, and the investigation was later dropped.

He presented himself in 2012 to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he claimed asylum on the grounds of political persecution, and spent the following seven years in self-exile there, welcoming a parade of celebrity visitors and making periodic appearances from the building's balcony to address supporters.

In 2019, his hosts revoked his asylum, allowing British police to arrest him. He remained locked up for the last five years while the Justice Department sought to extradite him, in a process that encountered skepticism from British judges who worried about how Assange would be treated by the U.S.

Ultimately, though, the resolution sparing Assange prison time in the U.S. contradicts years of ominous warnings by Assange and his supporters that the American criminal justice system would expose him to unduly harsh treatment, including potentially the death penalty — something prosecutors never sought.

Last month, Assange won the right to appeal an extradition order after his lawyers argued that the U.S. government provided ''blatantly inadequate'' assurances that he would have the same free speech protections as an American citizen if extradited from Britain.

His wife, Stella Assange, told the BBC from Australia that it had been ''touch and go'' over 72 hours whether the deal would go ahead but she felt ''elated'' at the news.

After the morning court hearing, Assange left Saipan by plane around midday headed for Australia, where relatives were waiting to be reunited with him.

Assange on Monday had left the London prison where he has spent the last five years after being granted bail during a secret hearing last week. The plane carrying him and Australian officials landed for refueling in Bangkok en route to Saipan. A video posted by WikiLeaks on the X platform showed Assange staring intently out the window at the blue sky as the plane headed toward the island.

''Imagine. From over 5 years in a small cell in a maximum security prison. Nearly 14 years detained in the U.K. To this,'' WikiLeaks wrote.

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Tucker reported from Fort Pierce, Florida, and Durkin Richer from Washington. Associated Press writers Colleen Long in Washington, Napat Kongsawad and David Rising in Bangkok, Jill Lawless and Brian Melley in London and Rod McGuirk in Melbourne, Australia, contributed to this report.