What could bring together two terrorism suspects, an alleged computer hacker and a multimillionaire businessman with an MBE?
Northumbria entrepreneur Karl Watkin has been a tireless campaigner for men suspected of grim crimes, investing £250,000 of his own money and 12 years of his life fighting for justice for them.
He is one of the most high-profile critics of the US-UK treaty on extradition.
The 2003 agreement was designed to skewer terrorists in a post 9/11 world. It allows the US to extradite UK citizens for breaking US law, even if the offence was committed in Britain, by a UK citizen. There is no reciprocal right.
This is the law that threatens terrorism suspects Babar Ahmad and Syed Ahasan and suspected computer hacker Gary McKinnon with extradition, despite having apparently committed crimes in the UK and being UK citizens, and meant the NatWest three served prison terms in the US.
This week, Watkin’s second bid to bring a private prosecution against Ahmad and Ahasan, to force them to be tried in the UK, has been rejected by a district judge.
Ashfaq Ahmad, father of Babar Ahmad, outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London
District judge Howard Riddle, sitting at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, called it “an abuse of the process of the court.
“Bearing in mind all the factors that have been drawn to my attention, I am satisfied that it is not in the interests of justice to issue these proceedings.
He added that the information provided by Watkin did not provide “the essential ingredients of soliciting to murder” and there was “no direct evidence that either Mr Ahmad or Mr Ahsan solicited murder”.
Watkin’s first bid to bring legal proceedings against the pair under the Terrorism Act 2000 was stopped by the director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer QC, who said statements provided by Watkin were “very short, lack any meaningful detail and do not provide any real support for a prosecution”.
Watkin is an unlikely champion for suspected terrorists, but is willing to spend thousands on private prosecutions of the men, in order to ensure they are not sent to the US.
“We are absolutely not terrorist sympathisers. If Babar Ahmad and Syed Ahsan have done what they are alleged to have done, they should go to prison for an awfully long time. In the UK,” he told The Huffington Post UK.
“I’ve had no contact with them [Babar Ahmad and Syed Ahsan] at all, never met them or spoken to them. But we should not subcontract our judicial system to the Americans because we don’t think ours is suitable for this particular crime. If it isn’t, then that should be addressed.
The NatWest Three: Giles Darby, David Bermingham and Gary Mulgrew outside the High Court, three City bankers accused of fraud in connection with the collapse of Enron, in what was the first test case of the 2003 Extradition Act.
“The DPP has not got enough evidence, they claim. And the reason that is, is because the police took the evidence and gave it to the Americans, not to the CPS and DPP. That’s a fact, not a spurious allegation on my part.”
Were Babar Ahmad extradited to the US, purely because the terrorism website he is alleged to have run from the UK was hosted on an American server, it would set a terrifying precedent, says Watkin.
Ahmad has been in jail without trial for eight years while fighting extradition, and Ahsan has been held for six years.
Neither has been charged with an offence in the UK relating to the website Azzam.com, even though the investigation by US authorities includes evidence seized by the Metropolitan Police.
“It’s allowing the Americans to extend their insidious territorial reach even further and try anyone on the flimsiest of terms.
“The internet, as everyone perceives it, is based in the clouds. That’s got to be addressed. It’s not for America to decide that anyone who commits a crime on the internet should be tried there.
“We might as well say ‘Fuck it, let’s pack up our judicial system, here you go America, why don’t you deal with everything?'”
Supporters of Babar Ahmad shout slogans during a demonstration outside Bow street magistrates court in London
Watkin, who has invested in major projects in China and Asia, from a £4.5bn telecoms empire to building multimillion pound biofuels company D1 oils, said it was his experience working across continents and dealing with international law that made him horrified when the US-UK treaty was first mooted.
“Immediately on hearing about 12 years ago that there was going to be a new treaty on extradition negotiated with the USA, I got myself involved in trying to stop it.”
He places the blame for the treaty’s flaws squarely on the shoulders of certain politicians who were “determined to be poodles to America. In particular Tony Blair, David Blunkett and Baroness Scotland, who were all heavily involved in drafting the agreement.
“It was drafted for terrorists to be extradited, but I knew that what would happen was that businessmen and the man in the street would end up getting extradited on a whim and that’s exactly what happened.”
The campaign to stop the treaty began long before it was signed, with Watkin trying to effect the political change needed through contacts and friends like the former health secretary Alan Milburn.
“And everyone I spoke to was concerned about it but the consensus was that we should wait until the terms of the treaty were negotiated before we could do anything about it.
“So we monitored it for two years, and then by the time we could do anything about it, it was virtually set in concrete.”
Campaigners for computer hacker Gary Mckinnon protest at the Home Secretary’s decision not to halt his extradition to the US, outside the Home Office
He became closely involved with Liberty, and a personal friend of its director Shami Chakrabati as he campaigned on the treaty, along with Melanie Riley, founder of Friends Extradited. But his friends in the business world did not want to know – at least at first.
“It was telling that at the time, the British Chamber of Commerce at first didn’t want to know. And then more and more people became alarmed.
“And we eventually got 10,000 leading businessmen in the UK to sign a petition, published in the Telegraph, and a march from the Institute of Directors with 500 people. We lobbied the House of Commons and the House of Lords to vote against the treaty.”
But despite strong opposition, the treaty was signed. Since then, Watkin has been more pragmatic, addressing each attempted extradition on a practical, case-by-case basis.
Should our extradition treaty with the US be changed?
Yes, it is one-sided and unfair
No, it is essential for our national security
Watkin now believes that even the authors of the treaty know they have erred. “It’s not that important ultimately, what I think about the treaty. My views are pretty clear. It’s actually more interesting to consider the views of the then Home Secretary David Blunkett. He was on a crusade to get this treaty signed off.
“And he realised that he screwed up and dropped a big bollock, and is now on public record saying the treaty needs renegotiation. But that doesn’t give me any satisfaction.
“Let me be quite clear, I actually don’t think this treaty is in America’s interest. It’s doing such damage to its brand in the UK, by the pursuit of people like Gary McKinnon, because people in the UK do not see it as fair law.
“150,000 people have signed a petition trying to stop the extradition of Babar Ahmad.
“We are sending people off on a whim. At what cost is this to American and British relations?
Gary McKinnon with his mother Janis Sharp outside the High Court in London
As well as financially contributing to cases, Watkin claims his main role has been to persuade high profile celebrities to back calls for an end to the treaty, including Sting, Trudy Styler, Sir Bob Geldof and former hostage Terry Waite.
He has tirelessly campaigned to have the issue addressed by government, and is highly critical of politicians who said they would act.
“This current government were extremely sympathetic to us – when they were in opposition. Cameron is on record saying that Gary McKinnon should not be extradited.
“We are lobbying government continuously, and everyone is doing it for free, they are doing it because they passionately believe that British citizens who are allegedly committing crimes in the UK should be tried in the UK and go to prison in the UK if they are guilty.”
Watkin admits it has been hard to gain the same kind of public backing for Ahmad and Ahasan than he had for someone like Gary McKinnon, because of the men’s association with hook-handed Egyptian cleric Abu Hamza.
“They have been lumped in with Abu Hamza, and in my view that’s been done quite deliberately. They are not terrorists. They are alleged terrorists.
“In America you are guilty until you are proven innocent, in the UK, the last time I checked, you are innocent until proven guilty.
“It is all about the spin on this. They are basically saying these men are Abu Hamza’s co-conspirators or twin brother. They are not. Aside from the fact that Hamza is an Egyptian and these guys are British.
“Yes, there’s been some negative reactions the I have received about my involvement, mostly from the pig ignorant who see me as a terrorist sympathiser. None of us are.
“We are committed to getting the government and the judiciary to address the fundamental issues here, the unfairness of the American side of the treaty.”
“Honestly, you do sometimes wonder if we’re all just wasting our time and money. On the other hand, we know we have huge support.
“But huge support doesn’t seem to deliver actual change to people who need it radically and immediately. And it’s very hard to give up on, especially when you’ve invested 12 years of your life.”