Action needed to ensure Britons are not sent overseas for trial over alleged offences committed in the UK or without evidence
A parliamentary committee has urged the government to renegotiate its much-criticised extradition treaties with the US and EU to avoid future cases like that of Gary McKinnon, the hacker who has spent nine years fighting removal to America.
Swift action was needed in particular to make sure Britons were not sent overseas for trial over alleged offences committed wholly or mainly inside the UK or, as is currently the case, without any evidence being offered against them, the joint committee on human rights (JCHR), which comprises MPs and peers from all three major parties, concluded following an inquiry.
Such measures would prevent future cases like that of McKinnon, who has become a focal point for opposition to the laws. McKinnon’s supporters argue that any trial should take place in the UK given that his hacking activities were undertaken from a bedroom in north London.
The issue has been highlighted in a more recent case, in which Richard O’Dwyer, a Sheffield undergraduate, faces extradition to the US for operating a website linking to other sites carrying pirated TV shows and films – a practice that is possibly not even an offence in Britain.
The fact that EU countries can request extradition without offering prima facie evidence had led to people languishing in jail overseas on “speculative charges”, the report said. Other concerns included a sizeable number of warrants for trivial offences – examples include theft involving bicycles or even piglets – and a lack of legal assistance abroad.
Hywel Francis, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said the government needed to look into renegotiating both the extradition agreement with the US and the separate EU-wide European arrest warrant, both of which come under the 2003 Extradition Act.
“There were 699 UK extradition cases in 2009/10. That is an enormous number of extraditions. I was surprised not just by the numbers of people involved, but the nature of the problems. There are quite a number of recommendations that we made and that indicates that there are a lot of issues to be addressed,” he said.
Advising renegotiation was “a bold recommendation” but showed the depth of backbench feeling on the issue, he added: “This is a joint committee of the Lords and the Commons, with a coalition government majority, and it’s a unanimous report.” A key recommendation is that the government immediately enacts a so-called forum provision, which would give UK judges powers to decide whether an alleged offence would be better tried in Britain. This would most likely eliminate cases such as those of McKinnon or O’Dwyer. The provision exists in law but needs a vote of both houses of parliament to become active.
This should be done, the committee said, adding: “It is difficult to understand why this has not yet happened.”
While both coalition parties criticised the extradition laws in opposition, the current government – rather than enact immediate change – last year commissioned a review by the senior judge Sir Scott Baker, who will report at the end of the summer.
McKinnon’s mother, Janis Sharp, said she welcomed the report. Her son’s fate now rests with David Cameron, who discussed the case with President Obama and hinted that McKinnon, who has Asperger’s syndrome, could remain in the UK.
“I’m very pleased. It puts more pressure on the government over Gary,” she said. “But I don’t see why they need to wait. I have been talking to Richard O’Dwyer’s mother and things seem to be getting worse. It is ridiculous. Gary has already lost almost a quarter of his life. It has been more than nine years since the arrest.”
Sophie Farthing from the civil rights pressure group Liberty said the recommendations appeared “very strong”.
“We’ve been calling for a lot of these reforms for years. We have such a rotten system of extradition now, with an extradition act introduced in the context of the ‘war on terror’. It hasn’t delivered the results it was meant to deliver.
“No one is saying that there shouldn’t be an expedient system of extradition, but by taking the decisions out of the hands of judges you just end up with a lot of unfair cases.”
Julian Knowles, a barrister from London’s Matrix Chambers specialising in extradition cases, said there was a definite need for changes.
“As far the European arrest warrant scheme is concerned we’re seeing the law of unintended consequences,” he said. “At the time it was adopted, in 2002, we didn’t have Poland and other eastern European countries as members of the EU. Under Polish law once a warrant has been issued it can’t be withdrawn, so you get hundreds of these warrants, some for very trivial cases.
“But I think a lot of us in the field did anticipate problems with the US, which has a very aggressive attitude towards prosecution. That was a foreseeable problem.”