Scotland Yard has called off its multimillion pound 24-hour surveillance of the Ecuadorian embassy where Julian Assange has been living for 40 months, having decided the operation is “no longer proportionate”.
The WikiLeaks founder, an Australian national, sought political asylum at the embassy in June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where prosecutors want to question him over rape allegations. In August they dropped their investigation into two other claims – one of sexual molestation and one of unlawful coercion – because they ran out of time to question him.
Metropolitan police officers have maintained a constant watch of the embassy in Knightsbridge, central London, at a cost of at least £11.1m, according to figures released by Scotland Yard in June.
A statement from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) on Monday said the operation to arrest Assange continued but it was “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,” it continued. “Whilst no tactics guarantee success in the event of Julian Assange leaving the embassy, the MPS will deploy a number of overt and covert tactics to arrest him.”
Kristin Hrafnsson, spokesperson for Wikileaks, said he did not know why the police had abandoned its 24-hour presence. “My interpretation is that it has not been lifted. They are calling off the uniformed presence but escalating the covert operation and will arrest him if he steps out off the embassy.”
A reduced police presence “does not fundamentally change the situation”.
He speculated that the move might be a way of moving the costs of the uniformed presence, which infuriated the public, to the covert operation.
Hrafnsson added that the move comes ahead of an expected ruling by the UN working group on arbitrary detention which he expected to find in favour of Assange.
In its statement, Scotland Yard said there was no “imminent prospect of a diplomatic or legal resolution to this issue”.
“Like all public services, MPS resources are finite,” the statement said. “With so many different criminal, and other, threats to the city it protects, the current deployment of officers is no longer believed proportionate.”
Two women made allegations against Assange five years ago in Stockholm, but no charges were brought because the prosecutor said she was unable to interrogate him.
A European arrest warrant was issued in December 2010 and he is now subject to arrest under the Bail Act for failing to surrender to custody on 29 June 2012 for removal to Sweden.
Assange believes he had no choice but to seek asylum as Sweden declined to guarantee that he would not be extradited to the US to face espionage charges related to WikiLeaks if he travelled to Stockholm.
Ecuadorian officials reportedly considered smuggling Assange out of the embassy by disguising him in fancy dress, allowing him to hop across the Kensington rooftops to a helipad, or become lost in the crowds in Harrods, according to documents seen by the Ecuadorian news website Focus Ecuador and BuzzFeed UK.
Another possibility for getting Assange out was purportedly to appoint him Ecuador’s representative to the UN and hustle him out in an official car under the protection of diplomatic immunity.