London’s Metropolitan Police have today ended their 24-hour watch over the Ecuadorian Embassy after deciding there was little prospect of enforcing a European Arrest Warrant against Julian Assange in the near future.
Assange is wanted for questioning by the Swedish authorities but has been taking refuge in the embassy since June 2012.
The Met has since maintained a constant 24-hour presence outside the building in the hope of arresting Assange should he attempt to leave.
The operation has cost London taxpayers in excess of £12m, money which Mayor Boris Johnson says his officials have “made representations” to ministers about recouping from national government.
On Monday Scotland Yard announced that the mounting cost had forced it to review the resources dedicated to the operation and that “the physical presence of officers from outside the Embassy” has been withdrawn with immediate effect.
In a statement the Met said: “The operation to arrest Julian Assange does however continue and should he leave the Embassy the MPS will make every effort to arrest him. However it is no longer proportionate to commit officers to a permanent presence.
“The MPS will not discuss what form its continuing operation will take or the resourcing implications surrounding it.”
The Met says senior officers took the decision to withdraw officers after consulting “the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.”
Today’s decision is the latest impact of the force’s budget which has already been cut by more than £600m, forcing it to slash the number of senior officers within its ranks and close and sell dozens of police stations and buildings including its world famous Scotland Yard HQ.
In its statement the force added: “A significant amount of time has passed since Julian Assange entered the Embassy, and despite the efforts of many people there is no imminent prospect of a diplomatic or legal resolution to this issue.
“The MPS has to balance the interests of justice in this case with the ongoing risks to the safety of Londoners and all those we protect, investigating crime and arresting offenders wanted for serious offences, in deciding what a proportionate response is.
“Like all public services, MPS resources are finite. With so many different criminal, and other, threats to the city it protects, the current deployment of officers is no longer believed proportionate.”
The force’s decision has been welcomed by London Assembly Member Baroness Jenny Jones who said: “Why have we wasted so much valuable police time and taxpayer money keeping one man trapped in an embassy, when using covert surveillance was always an option?
“I’m glad that the officers have been stood down and I hope that this acts as an incentive for all parties to resolve the legal issues. London’s police are already stretched due to budget cuts and this ridiculous stand-off was adding to those pressures.”
Labour’s Murad Qureshi AM commented: “Since Julian Assange entered the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2012 taxpayers have had to fork out over £12m policing him. Of course we should do everything possible to apprehend Julian Assange so he can face a fair trial but there’s no way spending such vast amounts of money could be justified indefinitely.
“We needed to see diplomatic efforts to resolve this situation, encouraging Swedish prosecutors to travel to the embassy to interview Assange, or even contribute to the costs the Metropolitan Police have incurred.
“With neighbourhood policing being decimated by cuts, and violent crime once again on the rise in the capital, we need to see this money spent on protecting Londoners not police officers providing window dressing for the Ecuadorian Embassy.”
Caroline Pidgeon, Leader of the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group and member of the Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee, said: “Back in June 2012 I don’t think anyone would ever have imagined that Assange would have been so stubborn as to hide out in the Ecuadorian Embassy for over three years.
“Reviewing the level of security needed on the embassy seems only right and proper, especially at a time when the resources of the Met are so heavily stretched.
“Over £12 million of Met’s resources have sadly been squandered and policing in London has been put under further pressure simply due to Assange’s actions. It is now time that this immense policing bill created by a diplomatic spat was picked up by the Home Office.
“But most importantly irrespective of the level of policing of the Ecuadorian Embassy in the future the one fact remains is that he should simply walk out of Ecuadorean Embassy and finally let justice prevail.”