‘He needs time’: wife pleads for privacy as Julian Assange reunited with family after landing in Australia

Julian Assange needs time to recover after his 14-year legal saga, his wife, Stella, said, following his arrival back in Australia on Wednesday night.

The WikiLeaks founder touched down in the Australian capital of Canberra just after 7.30pm on Wednesday, before walking across the tarmac to embrace his wife, Stella Assange. Supporters who had braved the cold could be heard applauding as he arrived, with some cheering “we love you Julian” and “welcome home”.

Assange left a US court in the US Pacific island territory of Saipan a free man on Wednesday after pleading guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified defence documents. He was sentenced to time already served, due to time already served in Belmarsh prison in London.

His release ends a legal saga that spanned more than a decade in which Assange spent five years in the high-security jail and seven years at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, battling extradition to the US where he faced 18 criminal charges. If found guilty, he would have faced a sentence of up to 175 years in prison.

Related: ‘This case ends with me’: inside the Saipan court as Julian Assange’s legal saga comes to an end

Immediately after the three-hour hearing, the US government withdrew its extradition request from the UK, dropped all remaining charges pending in the US, and banned Assange from returning to the US without permission. Assange headed straight to the airport and arrived in Canberra on Wednesday evening local time.

Assange travelled to Australia aboard a private chartered Bombardier jet, with his legal team, the ambassador to the US, Kevin Rudd, and the UK high commissioner, Stephen Smith.

Assange’s wife, Stella, joined his lawyers Jennifer Robinson and Barry Pollack, for a press conference on Wednesday night where she thanked supporters but asked for privacy as her husband recovers.

“Julian needs time to recover. To get used to freedoms. Someone told me yesterday who had been through something similar, that freedom comes slowly,” she said in front of a packed room of reporters.

“And I want Julian to have that space to rediscover freedom, slowly. And quickly.”

Robinson also thanked the former Australia prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who now serves as the Australian ambassador to the US, along with the serving prime minister, Anthony Albanese.

Robinson said she had become “very emotional” upon landing in Australia, and that Albanese had been the first to speak with Assange over the phone.

“Julian thanked him and the team and told the prime minister that he had saved his life. And I don’t think that that is an exaggeration,” Robinson said.

At a press conference shortly after Assange landed, Albanese said he was “pleased to be the first person” to speak with Assange “immediately upon the wheels touching the ground”.

“His safe return to Australia, we know, means so much to his family. His wife, Stella, his children, who he is looking forward to playing with like any dad, and his parents, Christine and John,” he said.

“There was no purpose to be served by this ongoing incarceration. And can I say that when I spoke with Mr Assange tonight, he described it as a surreal and happy moment.”

Ahead of his arrival, Assange’s father, John Shipton, told media at Parliament House that he hoped Assange did “normal things” after he got back. It will be the first time Assange has met the two sons he has with his wife outside prison.

Posting on X, Stella Assange asked supporters for help covering the “massive USD 520,000 debt” to the Australian government for the chartered flight – he was not allowed to fly on commercial airlines to Saipan and onward to Australia.

In parliament on Wednesday, Albanese said Australians would have different views about the plea deal, but overwhelmingly would support his release.

Related: A win for Julian Assange and a loss for press freedom? – podcast

“Over the two years since we took office, my government has engaged and advocated, including at the leader level, to resolve this. We have used all appropriate channels.”

Albanese had taken up the issue with the US president, Joe Biden, while politicians from across Australia’s political spectrum last year went to Washington to lobby US decision-makers to free Assange.

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

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

WikiLeaks shared an image on X of Assange hugging Robinson after he was released, with Rudd smiling in the background. Assange made no comment to waiting media before or after he left the courtroom but Robinson thanked the Australian government and the global movement for the court outcome.

“It is a huge relief to his family, to his friends, to his supporters and to us and 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 told reporters outside court.

“I hope that the fact that we’ve been able to free Julian Assange today against all the odds and against one of the most powerful governments in the world will give hope to all journalists and publishers who are imprisoned, around the world.”

– with Sharlotte Thou and AAP