(Bloomberg) -- Julian Assange has walked free after pleading guilty to leaking US national security secrets, ending a 14-year legal drama that has seen him spend time in UK jails and self-imposed exile in a London embassy.

The Wikileaks founder left a courtroom in Saipan in the US Northern Mariana Islands at around midday on Wednesday, surrounded by his legal team and Australian officials after receiving a 62-month time-served sentence. 

“Today is a historic day,” Assange’s lawyer Jen Robinson told reporters outside the courthouse. “Finally after 14 years of legal battles, Julian Assange can go home a free man.”

Assange pleaded guilty to unlawfully obtaining and disclosing “classified documents relating to the national defense,” according to a statement from the US Justice Department. He had arrived in the US territory after being released from a London jail. 

Under a deal with federal prosecutors, the 52-year-old’s next move will be a flight back to his home country of Australia — specifically, its capital Canberra.

The agreement resolves an international fight to prosecute Assange that has been underway since sensitive US military documents, war logs and diplomatic cables were publicly leaked in 2010 and 2011, including footage of a US airstrike in Baghdad a few years earlier.

While Assange will avoid a lengthy prison sentence — the plea deal gives him credit for the five years he spent in a high-security UK prison as he fought extradition to the US — Wikileaks is raising funds on his behalf to cover what it says is an additional “half a million US dollars” he must pay.

It is unclear whether Assange will meet with Australian government officials when he touches down in Canberra on Wednesday evening. However, his lawyer Robinson paid tribute to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for advocating on behalf of the Wikileaks founder.

“I want to thank our Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for his statesmanship, his principled leadership and his diplomacy, which made this outcome possible,” she said.

In one of the largest breaches of state secrets in US history, Assange was accused of assisting Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in obtaining around 750,000 classified or sensitive documents. Manning was convicted of leaking classified material in 2013, but then-President Barack Obama commuted her 35-year prison sentence in 2017.

Assange and Manning unlawfully conspired “to receive and obtain documents, writings, and notes connected with the national defense, including such materials classified up to the SECRET level,” according to a four-page filing by the Justice Department.

The leaks and an unrelated Swedish rape investigation that triggered his years on the run gained Assange global notoriety. He was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in a 2013 film about the early days of Wikileaks and was frequently lampooned on Saturday Night Live as a shadowy and mysterious figure.

The US criminally charged Assange in 2019 under the Trump administration with violating the Espionage Act and was seeking to extradite him from the UK, where he has been in prison ever since. The initial charges — 17 related to espionage and one to computer misuse — carried a maximum penalty of 175 years in prison if he was found guilty on all counts, although sentences for federal crimes are typically less than that.

But the US charges came years after the Swedish investigation, which led to his being detained in 2010 in London. Assange said the Swedish case was politically motivated and after months of fighting extradition while on bail fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Those charges were dropped in 2017, but Assange remained in a small apartment in the embassy as he continued to dodge UK police and American prosecutors.

Ecuador dropped his asylum status in 2019, leading to his dramatic arrest early one morning in April of that year. That kicked off his incarceration in London’s Belmarsh prison and another five years of legal wrangling as he fought the US charges before the current deal was hammered out. 

--With assistance from Katharine Gemmell, Jennifer Jacobs and Justin Sink.

(Updates with comments from lawyer.)

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