— Citing the strain on resources, the London police said on Monday that they were ending their round-the-clock monitoring of the Ecuadorean Embassy here, where Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, has been holed up since June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden
In a diplomatic and legal battle of wills, Mr. Assange, who faces an accusation of rape in Sweden and an order that he be extradited there to face questioning, sought asylum at the embassy. He has refused to go to Sweden, saying that he fears he could then be extradited to the United States
to face prosecution related to the publication of leaked State Department diplomatic cables. Mr. Assange, a native of Australia
, has strenuously denied the rape allegations, originally made in 2010, and no formal charges have been filed against him.
The police have been keeping a 24-hour watch outside the embassy, in the exclusive Knightsbridge district, poised to arrest Mr. Assange should he try to leave. (Diplomatic protocol prevents them from entering the building.) The constant surveillance had, as of the end of April, cost British taxpayers 11.1 million pounds, or $17 million, according to the police. It has also prompted an outcry by local politicians, who have called the operation a misuse of public resources, even as government officials have said that Britain
has a legal duty to enforce the extradition request by the Swedish authorities.
The Metropolitan Police Service in London, also known as Scotland Yard, said Monday that while it remained committed to executing the arrest warrant, “it is no longer proportionate to commit officers to a permanent presence.”
The police said the decision “has not been taken lightly,” and only after consultation with the Home Office, which is responsible for Britain’s internal security, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
“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 police service said. “The M.P.S. 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 offenses, in deciding what a proportionate response is.”
The British news media has reported that the Ecuadorean Embassy has considered different plots to help Mr. Assange escape, including smuggling him out in a disguise, having him leap across rooftops to get to a nearby helipad, or having him escape and then camouflage himself among the throngs of shoppers at the nearby Harrods department store.
Citing documents leaked from the embassy, news reports have also suggested that he could be whisked into a car or be smuggled out of the embassy in a bag. Another idea apparently circulating was that he would be appointed as Ecuador’s official representative to the United Nations, under the assumption that he could travel to Ecuador by invoking diplomatic immunity.
In October, Swedish prosecutors dropped several cases against Mr. Assange of lesser sexual misconduct, saying that the time allowed under Swedish law to pursue the cases had expired. Under Swedish law, the rape allegation can be pursued until August 2020.