You can tell much about the heart and soul of a government by its legislative programme. Being bold takes principles, and an ability to argue the case, cogently and with force.
It was highly revealing therefore that the Government failed to grasp the nettle in the Queen’s Speech and amend our dreadful extradition laws, despite the case for change being overwhelming.
Two separate Parliamentary committees have concluded, after lengthy enquiries, that the Extradition Act 2003 needs to be amended, firstly so that countries requesting extradition should support their requests with evidence, and secondly so that a judge here can determine whether, in the circumstances, the UK might be a better forum for any trial.
These conclusions were echoed in a Commons debate last December, where there was unanimous, cross-party support for an urgent change to the laws. Human rights and civil liberties groups such as Liberty, Fair Trials International and Justice have campaigned on the issue for years, and a constant stream of cases, particularly involving America, have resulted in leader article after leader article condemning the laws.
Every single member of the current Government who was in Parliament in 2006 tried to make exactly the amendments to the law that are now being called for, and were prevented from doing so only because the Labour Government shamelessly used its Parliamentary majority to block the measure, citing the necessity to deal with the threat of international terrorism.
The UK is alone in the world in allowing its own citizens to be extradited to another country to face trial, without evidence, and for crimes which, if committed at all, have been committed in the UK. The United States in particular adopts an extremely aggressive extraterritorial approach to its jurisdiction, as demonstrated in cases as diverse as the NatWest Three, Gary McKinnon, Ian Norris, Christopher Tappin and Richard O’Dwyer, to name but a few.
It is deeply ironic, therefore, that the Conservatives have come over all coy about specific promises, made whilst in opposition, to do the right thing and change the law if elected.
Attorney General Dominic Grieve and Home Secretary Theresa May are the public faces of this apparent change of heart. The former appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee in February and said of the arrangements with the US in particular that ‘I certainly don’t think they are in the condition in which ideally I would wish them to be’, before going on to lament how difficult it might be in practice to change them.
Mrs May, by contrast, has problems of her own making, having in September 2010 commissioned an independent review of our extradition laws by the former High Court Judge Sir Scott Baker, which concluded in October last year that neither the evidential test nor the ‘forum’ amendment were necessary. The Baker Review was met with a certain amount of astonishment by parliamentarians and the media, and its conclusions were described as ‘baffling’ by Liberty.
Eight months on, the Home Secretary has yet to make a formal response either to the Baker Review, or to act on the two parliamentary enquiries calling for amendment. The refusal, so far, of the Home Office to publish any of the evidence submitted to Sir Scott Baker does not bode well. This secrecy is in stark contrast to the enquiries by both the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, where all evidence given, both oral and written, is publicly available.
The American embassy in London has been lobbying very hard for the maintenance of the status quo, its ambassador having requested private audiences with the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Foreign Office to make the case.
The European Court of Human Rights decided last month that the extradition of five alleged terrorists to the US would not breach their fundamental rights, despite the prospect of life imprisonment in solitary confinement in one of America’s notorious ‘Supermax’ facilities. Within minutes of the judgment being handed down, the Home Secretary was in front of the TV cameras announcing her intention to have all five men on a plane as quickly as possible.
The extradition of Abu Hamza was a popular move, but other cases are not so straightforward
Given that the five include Abu Hamza, Mrs May presumably assumed that public opinion would be right behind her, particularly given the mess over the deportation to Jordan of Abu Qatada. And she was probably right.
There is a problem, though. Amongst the five is Babar Ahmad, a British Muslim from London, who is accused by the Americans along with Syed Talha Ahsan of running websites inciting violent jihad in places such as Chechnya and Afghanistan over a decade ago. Mr Ahmad has the dubious distinction of being the longest serving remand prisoner in modern UK history, having been in prison contesting extradition since 2004. Like Gary McKinnon, Mr Ahsan suffers from Aspergers Syndrome and like Mr Ahmad, has been held on remand for many years.
Mr Ahmad’s case was one of the first to be heard under the new Extradition Act, and the judge described it as ‘difficult and troubling’, because he had never been to America, and his case could patently have been tried in the UK, if evidence were available. Over the years, Mr Ahmad’s and Mr Ahsan’s cases have been raised in debate in Parliament time and again and in the reports of both Parliamentary Committees, which advocate law change to allow cases such as theirs to be heard here, in preference to extradition.
It has recently been revealed that most of the evidence against Mr Ahmad was given directly to the Americans by the Metropolitan Police, and never even examined by the Crown Prosecution Service. Worse, none of the evidence against Mr Ahsan was first reviewed by the CPS – yet he has been locked up since 2006 awaiting extradition. There is something profoundly worrying both about these cases, and the alacrity with which the Home Secretary announced that they should be put on a plane at the earliest opportunity.
Implicit in all of this is that the US does not trust its closest ally to conduct prosecutions. But worse still, the idea that we should outsource our criminal justice system for reasons of political expediency is as profound a betrayal of the British public as any imaginable.
If the boot were on the other foot, you can be sure that the Americans would be demanding that we hand over any evidence so that they could decide whether to try the individual at home. This is called legal sovereignty, and the Americans do it very well, as recently demonstrated by the case of the American soldier who went on a rampage in Afghanistan, killing men, women and children, and was promptly put on a plane back to the US to be dealt with there.
Indeed, a Freedom of Information Request to the Home Office has just revealed that not one single US citizen has been extradited to the UK under the Extradition Act 2003 for conduct committed on US soil.
Issues such as this define us as a nation. Cameron, Grieve and May might reflect on the growing public disillusionment with all three mainstream parties, and the fact that 149,000 people signed an e-petition in December calling for Babar Ahmad to be tried in the UK, approximately three times the total number of people who voted in Mrs May’s constituency at the last general election.
Difficult these things may be, as Mr Grieve observes, but doing the right thing often is. Extradition may not be an issue that affects many, but its effects on the few are profound. Habeas corpus and the presumption of innocence are the cornerstones of any democracy. The Extradition Act all but eviscerates them. It is a disgrace that the Government did not give Her Majesty something to say on the matter.
David Bermingham is the author of A Price to Pay – The Inside Story of the NatWest Three, published by Gibson Square Books £8.99
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2149852/Britains-unreformed-extradition-law-destroys-habeas-corpus-presumption-innocence.html#ixzz1wAFlMyRM