Assange plea deal hearing begins in Saipan

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appears at a U.S. District Court in Saipan

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (Reuters) -Julian Assange's plea deal hearing began on Wednesday in a courtroom on the U.S. Pacific island territory of Saipan where he is expected to walk free after a deal with U.S. prosecutors.

Assange is expected to plead guilty to violating U.S. espionage law and will be allowed to return home to Australia after spending years fighting extradition to the U.S. while being held in a British prison.

Assange, 52, has agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified U.S. national defense documents, according to filings in the U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

The U.S. territory in the western Pacific was chosen due to Assange's opposition to traveling to the mainland U.S. and for its proximity to Australia, prosecutors said.

(Reporting by Minwoo Park in Saipan; Writing by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)