In and out of the headlines since the case of the NatWest Three in 2006 and my client Gary McKinnon, few of the laws enacted under the Blair Government have created so much controversy, in particular the extraditions to the United States.
While in opposition, both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats tried and failed to reform a law that enables many foreign governments to request the extradition of British citizens without evidence, and without a UK court having the opportunity to determine whether a case might best be heard in the UK.
Every member of the present Cabinet who was in Parliament in 2006 voted at the time for change, but the Labour administration used its parliamentary majority to frustrate the attempt.
The coalition Government wasted little time in commissioning a judge-led review into the workings of the law, and two separate parliamentary committees also set about inquiring into the arrangements.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report in June calling for an immediate introduction of a “forum” amendment, which would permit a judge here to determine whether it would be in the interests of justice for an extradition rather than the option of a UK trial, and for a renegotiation of the contentious treaty with the US, described by Nick Clegg and many others as “lopsided”.
The Home Affairs Committee is also inquiring into the arrangements, but its report is not due until February.
In the meantime, Sir Scott Baker’s review, commissioned by the Home Secretary Theresa May, reported in October, recommending that neither the forum amendment nor the requirement for foreign governments to produce evidence in support of their requests was desireable. The report caused consternation among the many campaigners and parliamentarians who have spent several years lobbying for change. Liberty said it was “baffled” by the findings.
Clegg, perhaps in a move to distance his party from a coalition decision to adopt the findings, announced last week that Sir Menzies Campbell would conduct a separate review of the law against which he has long campaigned.
Last week, Dominic Raab, a Tony backbencher and a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, secured a backbench debate on the issue in Westminster Hall, at which MPs of all political persuasion expressed their profound dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs. Raab’s reward has been Monday’s full debate, on a motion in the Commons that will try to force the Government’s hand.
The situation is complicated, however, that any change in law, even if agreed by the Government and placed before Parliament, might not be retroactive, meaning that people already in the legal system might not benefit from such change. While McKinnon’s case may yet be decided in his favour by the Home Secretary on medical grounds, there are many others whose extradition could still be ordered.
Among their number is Babar Ahmad, a young Muslim man from Tooting, South London, who has the dubious distinction of being the longest-serving remand prisoner in modern UK history, having spent the past seven and a half years in maximum security detention pending extradition to the US on charges that he ran a website inciting terrorism, a charge that he strongly denies.
More than 140,000 supporters of Ahmad signed an e-petition calling for him to be tried in the UK — significantly more than the threshold necessary to secure a Parliamentary debate on the issue. His cause is championed by his constituency MP, the Shadow Justice Minister Sadiq Khan, and Caroline Lucas, MP, while McKinnon’s was powerfully represented by his constituency MP David Burrowes, among others.
Others caught in the system include another of my clients, Christopher Tappin, the Kent County Golf Club chairman, and Richard O’Dwyer, a student from Sheffield Hallam University, both wanted by the US on allegations of crimes which, if committed at all, were clearly committed in the UK.
The Government finds itself on the horns of a dilemma, therefore. Should they adopt the findings of the Scott Baker review, or those of the Joint Committee on Human Rights? As things stand, it would seem that the latter would find far greater favour with Parliament. A forum amendment would surely be uncontentious, but changing the law requiring countries to provide evidence in support of their requests is not simply a domestic affair and would require renegotiation of our arrangements with many of our extradition partners.
Monday’s debate, where for the first time the Government will be faced with a motion on the subject, will be a fascinating insight into the psyche of David Cameron’s Tories. Should they honour their promises while in opposition, or play politics with our liberties?
The author is the managing director of Kaim Todner solicitors
SOURCE: Times Online