Since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange took refuge in the Embassy of Ecuador in London in 2012, the British government has spent $8 million on keeping a close watch on him.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up inside the Embassy of Ecuador in London since 2012. The British government has been keeping close tabs on the whistleblower, spending a whopping $16,000 a day on security measures.
In December 2010, Assange was arrested in the United Kingdom on a European Union-wide warrant issued by Sweden, where two women accused him of rape and sexual assault. He stayed in the U.K. on bail, then in 2012, he took refuge at the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden.
Since he entered the embassy, the security measures in place — which would enable police to arrest Assange if he steps foot outside of the embassy — have created an $8 million bill footed by British taxpayers.
At 3 Hans Crescent in the posh Knightsbridge district of London, Assange occupies a 15 square meter space cluttered with computers and electronic gadgets. Embassy staff also offered him a tiny office with a corner fireplace that’s blocked by a table with a Mac and computer monitors, Paris Match reported last month.
“I’ve got nothing I can do but work. To be able to withstand the attacks of which I’m the target, you have to be very concentrated, have to exercise a lot of self-discipline. In this small space of mine here, I’m very well organized,” Assange told Paris Match.
Even though he’s working, the whistleblower’s many supporters see his living conditions in the embassy as a virtual prison.
Assange has dedicated all of his time to WikiLeaks and advocating for open government — activities that have made him a target for both British and American authorities. He ran into problems with both governments after releasing confidential diplomatic cables in 2010. Since then, he has been targeted by the Pentagon and the White House, as well as hit with financial blocks by Visa, PayPal, MasterCard and Bank of America.
After WikiLeaks published it first documents about U.S. military activities in Afghanistan in 2010, Assange faced an international arrest warrant from a Swedish prosecutor on rape and sexual assault allegations lodged by two women. He said both were “consensual relationships.”
If arrested, the British government plans to extradite Assange to Sweden, where he will face allegations brought by two women in Stockholm in 2010. Assange claims the allegations are part of a smear campaign against him and WikiLeaks, and he and many of his supporters believe Sweden will send him to U.S. to face trial for distributing and publishing massive amounts of highly-confidential documents on his website.
Assange denies all allegations and continues to stress that he was framed by both the U.K. and U.S., but until one side gives in, he’s essentially stuck in the embassy.
“We all have a feeling … that this is a situation that has to be solved. It’s no good for anyone to have the case stuck,” Ecuador’s Ambassador to London Juan Falconi Puig told Reuters. “But the first step will be to have the questioning. Unless we have the questioning, he may stay at the embassy as long as he needs.”
“Ludicrous” and “madness”
In recent weeks, British tabloids have questioned their government about its spending $16,000 a day to monitor and police the Ecuadorian Embassy — a figure that continues to escalate. From June 2012 to March this year, Scotland Yard’s bill for keeping an eye on Assange has cost British taxpayers about $8 million. According to political observers, Assange’s 22-month stay is having a knock-on effect on government spending.
“According to figures obtained by LBC under the Freedom of Information Act, the Metropolitan Police spent £5.9m on policing the building in South Kensington to the end of March,” LBC Radio reported late last month. “Taking into account the 25 days since those figures, the actual amount spent by the force is estimated to be £6.06m.” (6.06 million pounds is equal to about $10.26 million.)
The London Metropolitan Police have maintained around-the-clock surveillance, and financial records released by police estimate that 900,000 pounds (about $1.5 million) has been spent on overtime pay for officers.
Baroness Jenny Jones, deputy chair of the Police and Crime Committee at the London Assembly, described the huge cost as “ludicrous.”
The statute of limitations on Assange’s extradition request reportedly expires in 2022. If he stays in the embassy until then, it could cost the British government about $60 million.
“It is absolute madness. I have been asking the MET questions about this because clearly at the moment the cost is falling on the London taxpayers as a net police cost,” Jones said.
“I have been asking if the Government is going to pay. The Met is apparently trying to claim back some of the money, but of course it is still the taxpayer who is paying for it,” she said. “It is complete madness when we are struggling to keep police officers on the beat.”
Jones also suggested that the Metropolitan Police should just “walk away” from the situation. “I do understand the legal ramifications of the case, but the fact is this is a complete nonsense.”
Meanwhile, British taxpayers are not pleased that the government continues to monitor an individual taking refuge in an embassy — at great cost to taxpayers — while local communities need police attention.
“Hard-pressed families will be furious that the bill for guarding the Embassy is so enormous,” said John O’Connell, director of the TaxPayer’s Alliance. “Perhaps the Met doesn’t have a choice but taxpayers would much rather see police out on the beat and preventing crime in local communities, not stood outside a plush embassy in Knightsbridge.”
Embassy welcomes Sweden
In April, Ambassador Falconi suggested that Assange could stay in the embassy indefinitely, protected by the government’s extended asylum, if Sweden is not prepared to break the deadlock by sending prosecutors to interrogate him at the embassy.
“At the moment the case seems to be stuck,” Falconi told Reuters. “It’s the Swedish. If they want to move on the case it’s as simple as the Sweden prosecutor (having) the questioning at the embassy.”
“Anyone from Sweden would be very welcome at the embassy to have the questioning and they can move on the case,” he added.
Though Assange’s case has created a strain between Britain and Ecuador, Falconi stressed that the situation does not benefit any party involved and that Ecuador only wants to protect Assange’s human rights.
“For Ecuador it’s a matter of principles, that’s why Ecuador gives the protection,” Falconi told Reuters.