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Why the hearing to free Julian Assange happened on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific

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Why the hearing to free Julian Assange happened on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific

Julian Assange’s long-running legal odyssey has moved around the world, involving high-level negotiations across Australia, the United States, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Ecuador.

And now, more than 14 years after WikiLeaks dropped a cache of classified US defence documents alleging war crimes in Afghanistan and Syria, his case has reached a courtroom on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The Northern Mariana Islands is a US territory and one of the closest to mainland Australia. It shares a time zone with Australia’s east coast.

Assange arrived on the island of Saipan about 6:30am, accompanied by Australia’s ambassador to the US, Kevin Rudd.

Just over an hour later, he walked into the US District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands, where he entered a guilty plea as part of a deal with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) that brought his fight for freedom to a close.

The terms of the deal meant Assange was sentenced to time served, meaning at the close of proceedings, he was free to travel to Australia.

After seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy and five years in Belmarsh Prison, Assange now returning to Australia.

And like his legal battle has done plenty of times before, it brought another dramatic twist — one that has taken him from a high-security jail cell in England to the big blue of the Pacific.

Why the Northern Mariana Islands?

If you needed to be in an United States District Court, far from continental USA and close to home in Australia, the Northern Mariana Islands are a good option.

Saipan is the largest island and the capital of the territory, which begins roughly 70 kilometres north of Guam and stretches across 14 islands.

An island with sand and green shrubbery with mountains in the back

Saipan is one of several islands known as the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific.(Supplied: Visit The USA)

Like Guam or Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands are part of the US without the full status of a state.

After time as a colony of Spain, Germany and then Japan, the United States took control of the island in World War II after the Battle of Saipan in 1944; residents voted to become a US territory in 1975.

Residents are US citizens, but cannot vote in presidential elections.

Crucially, some of the islands, like Saipan, also host US district courts.

As the court hearing started, Judge Ramona Manglona who is presiding over the case said: “Not many people recognise we are part of the United States, but that is true.”

On Tuesday, WikiLeaks posted on the social media platform X a video showing Australia’s High Commissioner to the UK, Stephen Smith, in a vehicle with Assange.

It said the pair were in Bangkok. Assange’s jet arrived in the Thai capital earlier in the day and took off again, bound for Saipan, just after 10:30pm local time (1:30am Wednesday, AEST).

When Assange was in court on Wednesday, he was roughly 3,000km from Australia. Hawaii is more than twice as far away, California further still.

US prosecutors said the location was important to Assange and that he wanted to go to a court close to Australia.

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