‘Sentencing is too soft. Legal aid is a gravy train. Human rights are inappropriate for foreigners suspected of grave crimes.” It’s a common enough refrain, especially when fears of existential threat and economic disaster stalk the land.Yet what is the inevitable practical consequence of acting on these sentiments? A world where any one of us is vulnerable to the treatment we would visit on the most despised, but never thought applicable to ourselves.
Christopher Tappin, a retired businessman, is this week’s case in point as the latest victim of the instant extradition arrangements brought in after 9/11: no testing of the evidence in a local court; no judicial discretion as to whether justice in the particular case could be better done by a trial at home.US Homeland Security accuses him of conspiracy to export missile parts to Iran. He says he was merely afreight provider arranging the shipping of industrial batteries from Texas to the Netherlands. It was his customer’s responsibility to arrange any licences. He had no idea of the eventual destination or potential military use of cargo that was bought from the owner in a US “sting” operation.
he Bush-Blair extradition philosophy famously ran as follows: the criminal trial systems of all “friendly”governments are broadly fair and equivalent. Individual rights are subordinate to administrative convenience and if you can get anything like a fair trial in a requesting state, why is there any legitimateinterest in being tried at home?The problem with such robotic logic is messy human reality. The quality of justice varies hugely not just between the UK and Jordan but across Europe and various states of the US. Further, even if an El Paso jury later finds that the 65-year-old golf enthusiast is not an accomplice of Iran, he will still spend yearsawaiting trial in a Texas prison parted from a sick wife and his life in England.Without British-style charging and sentencing principles, Mr Tappin faces the gamble of clearing his name or 35 years inside versus a plea bargain and a few years, his claimed innocence notwithstanding. Withoutmuch maligned British-style legal aid, he will have to sell his Orpington home to pay US lawyers to mount any defence.By contrast, the US Constitution requires that a basic case against an American is tested in a US court before he can be sent anywhere.Both coalition parties promised extradition reform in opposition. In government they rightly advocatehuman rights and the rule of law elsewhere. Even at the risk of irritating the US authorities, doesn’t homeland justice and security begin at home?
Shami Chakrabarti is director of Liberty