Victoria Brittain on the home secretary’s double standards in the Gary McKinnon case.
Only former Labour home secretary Alan Johnson chose to stand aside publicly from the wave of support for the highly popular and welcome decision by Theresa May last week to stop the extradition of Gary McKinnon to the US. It was the end of a ten year legal saga involving several home secretaries.
In earlier years Johnson had been a key player in this story, rejecting Gary McKinnon’s lawyers’ attempts to have him tried instead in the UK. He revealed last week that in his time as home secretary the US had been prepared to let McKinnon serve his prison term in the UK after a US trial.
It was a telling detail, and one of many in this saga, which illustrate the UK’s unequal treatment meted out to young Muslim men compared to white non-Muslim men. Britain does not like hearing that racism and Islamophobia are alive and well today as they were thirteen years ago when Lord Macpherson identified ‘institutional racism’ in the police, in relation to the Stephen Lawrence case. The events of the last month around extradition to the US are hard to read in any other way.
There was a torrent of media praise for Theresa May’s ‘bravery in standing up to the US’, perhaps epitomised by Gary McKinnon’s campaigning mother later tweeting for tweets to support Theresa May: ‘she needs our help’.
The Daily Telegraph had reported exclusively that US Attorney General Eric Holder was refusing to take Theresa May’s calls and that US officials were saying relations between her and the Obama administration ‘were finished’. In fact Theresa May has, as she needed to after a number of blunders, strengthened her position in her core constituency by a popular decision that one lawyer unconnected with any extradition cases characterised as ‘quite breath-taking in its hypocrisy and its timing’.
Gary McKinnon, like the five Muslim men extradited from the UK to the US two weeks ago, was accused of crimes defined as related to terrorism. US lawyers’ affidavits indicated that he would not get bail in the US (as he had in the UK) and that he would be subject to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) of isolation and sensory deprivation while in pre-trial detention. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture defines this US regime of isolation as torture. Extensive documentation on it exists, much of it from well-known US lawyers.
Here few MPs, lawyers or human rights organisations took on the government on this territory: that extradition to the US today for terrorism related offences will expose people to conditions of torture.
Instead the battles over the extraditions of Gary McKinnon, and Babar Ahmed and Talha Ahsan, were over changing the controversial extradition law (which Theresa May has now announced she is to do). There was wide ranging support in Parliament for this. And a major campaign was run by the Daily Mail, in support of Gary McKinnon. An additional point was frequently made of Gary McKinnon’s suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Talha Ahsan also suffers from the same condition.
The home secretary announced her decision, to cheers in Parliament, based on medical reports that Gary McKinnon was likely to commit suicide if extradited. Asperger’s was on the back bench.
Mental health concerns were prominent in the legal cases against extradition for both Talha Ahsan and the Egyptian lawyer, Adel Abul Bari, as Theresa May was undoubtedly well aware. In their cases she chose to ignore that issue.
Despite facing no charges here Talha Ahsan had spent six years in prison, Abdul Bari 13, Babar Ahmed eight. Gary McKinnon was at home on bail.
Now these men are, as the US lawyers warned, likely to be facing SAMs for the year they will be in pre-trial detention until their cases begin in October 2013. Liberty welcomed the McKinnon decision as ‘a great day for rights, freedom and justice in the UK’. But more accurately it was a day deeply over-shadowed with the gross unfairness of what was carried out two weeks before to five Muslim men, and the inescapable knowledge of what is likely to be happening to them over the next year before their trials, cut away from families, friends, lawyers they know. Afterwards can anyone imagine a suggestion they serve their sentences here?