Julian Assange: three years and £12.6 million later

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As police end the guard on the WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange at The Ecuadorian Embassy in London, is the money spent justified?

Julian Assange has been taking refuge at The Ecuadorian Embassy in London for three years since Ecuador granted him political asylum. This week the Met Police has finally decided to end the 24 hour guard outside. The Met have estimated that it has cost around £12.6 million and now believe it is “no longer proportionate”. They have said they will use both overt and covert measures to catch Assange. He is arguably one of the most famous and controversial whistleblowers of our time and is wanted by both Sweden and the US.

In the US the WikiLeaks founder is wanted for espionage, the US government have an ongoing sealed grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks. Assange is considered a terrorist by many senior figures and has been severely criminalised for his actions.

He is wanted in Sweden under investigation for several offences, though in August investigators ran out of time to question him over one allegation of sexual molestation and one of unlawful coercion. He is still wanted in accusation of a rape offence but strongly denies these allegations. If Assange goes to Sweden for questioning he fears he will then be extradited to the US. Opportunities for Sweden to interview Assange at the embassy were talked about but never came about, raising the question: do Sweden just want to get hold of him to extradite him?

In the current economic climate, £12.6 million of tax payer’s money is definitely a big deal. This money has been squandered on a police guard outside the embassy when the money would be much better spent in healthcare or education. London Mayor Boris Johnson has also voiced concern saying that the money should be spent on frontline policing. Why has it taken so long for the police guard of the embassy to end? There are much more pressing matters for the police to be dealing with day to day. Cuts to policing are constantly in the headlines.

The amount of money spent on the guard is evidently extortionate. The decision by the Met to end it is better late than never. I fully acknowledge that the rape accusations are a serious issue and need to be looked into, but on the side of espionage I believe Assange should be protected and not extradited. As a Journalism student I feel very strongly about freedom of speech and transparency in the media. Without whistleblowers like Assange, many issues would be unknown to the public. After all, most of the information made public by WikiLeaks has arguably been in the public interest. I believe the fear created around whistleblowing is a form of censorship in itself, fully backing initiatives such as the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) which aims to protect journalism and freedom of speech, encouraging investigative journalism.

Little is known about Assange’s plans to reach the safety of Ecuador. There was speculation over leaked documents in early September which suggested smuggling him out in disguise, or in a bag, then into a car. But this was quickly dismissed because the embassy shares the building, and therefore police had been patrolling inside, making it difficult to get to a car. Now that the police guard has been removed could this be his chance to flee? Ecuador has also previously considered appointing Assange as their representative at the UN, giving him diplomatic immunity before the UN could reject the the appointment. But this also never materialised.

Britain is a country that is supposed to pride itself on human rights which includes freedom of speech, expression and information deemed in the public interest. We should be supporting whistleblowers not trying to stitch them up. Yes, Julian Assange needs to be questioned over the rape allegation, but he should also be granted political asylum in the UK.