Is it a coincidence that welcome extradition changes came too late for some?
It would be churlish not to congratulate the Home Secretary for a job well done yesterday. Refusing, on medical grounds, the extradition of the hacker Gary McKinnon was the compassionate thing to do, the right thing to do, and met with near universal approval when announced to Parliament. The only naysayer was the former Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, who seemed to take it as a personal affront that this vulnerable man was not carted off in irons to the United States.
But justice has still to be done. Mr McKinnon must be required to account for his actions, having admitted hacking into computers in five US government departments over a period of more than a year. But the decision on whether to prosecute him will now rest with the Director of Public Prosecutions in Britain. Many who have campaigned for Mr McKinnon over the years would wish to see him face trial here, so that the matter can finally be brought to a proper conclusion.
Equally welcome was the news that the Government will allow a judge during extradition proceedings to determine whether a trial in the UK might be preferable to extradition. This is a crucial breakthrough and could see the end of a campaign begun prior to the 2006 extradition of the NatWest Three, of whom I was one.
Announcing the proposal yesterday, the Home Secretary acknowledged the shortcomings of the legal clause that would allow this to happen. It has lain dormant on the statute book since John Reid, the former Home Secretary put it there as a sop to our campaign in 2006 — vowing as he did that it would never be brought to life.
So the change proposed by Mrs May will require primary legislation, which she indicated would be introduced “when parliamentary time allows” — a phrase that guarantees it will be some time before we campaigners for change can pack up our tents and say our work is done.
However, Mrs May’s statement yesterday failed to acknowledge what most right-thinking people have long known — that our extradition treaty with the US still urgently needs to be fixed. Two parliamentary committees have said as much after conducting lengthy inquiries. And the Home Secretary herself voted in favour of a change to the treaty in 2006. But yesterday she fell back on the handy, if implausible, view expressed in the report by Sir Scott Baker in September 2011 that the extradition treaty was not imbalanced.
Perhaps Mrs May wanted to spare the learned judge’s blushes, given that her decisions on jurisdiction yesterday implicitly ignored his views. More likely, though, is that the pressure from the US Embassy to maintain the uneven status quo has been too great.
The argument over the fairness of the treaty rests on the evidence that must be provided by each country when requesting an extradition. What it means in practice is that British citizens can be extradited without a hearing in a British court, but the same does not apply to Americans being extradited here. The matter could be resolved with the simple removal of the words “for requests to the United States” from Article 8 of the treaty, which would magically provide total reciprocity of obligation and silence all critics. That the U S is adamant that it will not permit such a change serves only to reinforce the belief that it is unfair.
What was a wonderful day for Gary McKinnon and the force of nature that is his mother, Janis Sharp, contrasts with the sadness and sense of betrayal felt by the families of Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan, extradited some ten days ago. A clause allowing a judge to decide where their case was heard would almost certainly have been decisive in preventing their extradition. The timing of yesterday’s announcement, after the pesky alleged terrorists had been bundled on to a plane under the headline marked Hamza, was fortunate indeed for Mrs May.
Challenged on this issue in the House of Commons by three MPs, the Home Secretary repeatedly fell back on the ridiculous assertion that the cases of Ahmad and Ahsan had been dealt with thoroughly by the courts — much in the way that the Salem witches had been handled.
The day before his extradition Ahmad wrote me a letter to say goodbye. “Once I’m gone, the law will be changed, so it was worth it,” he said.
He was right — and I feel ashamed.
David Bermingham is the author of A Price to Pay: The Inside Story of the NatWest Three