Outrage continues to swell about the peremptory extradition of British citizens to face trial on tenuous charges abroad.
Thanks to the tireless campaigning of distraught family members, a growing anger in the UK press, and indignant questions and debates in Parliament — even our somnambulant MPs have roused themselves to state that Something Must be Done - the Extradition Act 2003 is now centre stage, and reform of the law will no doubt occur at some point.
As there is a growing consensus, why the delay? I have a theory, but first let’s review some of the most troubling recent cases.
The case that really brought the issue to widespread public attention is the decade-long extradition battle of Gary McKinnon. With this sword of Damocles hanging over his head for so long, poor Gary has already effectively served a 10-year sentence, uncertain of his future and unable to work in his chosen profession. Thanks to the indefatigable campaigning of his mother, Janis Sharp, his case has received widespread support from the media and politicians alike.
Despite this the Home Secretary, Theresa May (who has recently been working so hard in Jordan to protect the rights of Abu Qatada), has dragged her feet abominably over making a decision about whether Gary should be extradited to the US to face a possible 70-year prison sentence — even though the UK investigation into his alleged crime was abandoned way back in 2002.
Then there is the more recent case of student Richard O’Dwyer, wanted in the US even though he lives in the UK and has broken no British laws. He is facing a 10 year maximum security sentence if extradited. Once again, his mother, Julia, is tirelessly fighting and campaigning for her son.
Most recently, Chris Tappin, a retired businessman and golf club president, has been shipped off to a Texas high security penitentiary following what sounds like a US entrapment operation (a technique not legally admissable in UK courts), and faces a 35 year sentence if convicted.
Despite having turned himself in, this elderly gent, who walks with the aid of a cane, is considered such a flight risk that he was last week denied bail. Once again, his wife Elaine has come out fighting.
My heart goes out to all these women, and I salute their tenacity and bravery. I remember living through a similar, if mercifully briefer, four months back in 1998 when the UK government tried and failed to extradite David Shayler from France to the UK to stand trial for a breach of the OSA. I remember with crystal clarity the shock of the arrest, the fear when he disappeared into a foreign legal system without trace, the anguish about his life in an alien prison.
And I remember the frightening moment when I realised I had to step up and fight for him — the legal case, dealing with MPs and the endless media work, including the terror of live TV interviews. And all this when you are worried sick about the fate of a loved one. Shall I just say it was a steep learning curve?
In the wake of the recent extradition cases, there have been questions in Parliament, motions, debates, reviews (Download Review), and there is an ongoing push for an urgent need for reform. And no doubt this will come, in time.
So why the delay? Why not change the law now, and prevent McKinnon, O’Dywer and many others being sacrificed on the American legal altar — the concept of “judicial rendition”, as I have mentioned before.
Well, I have a theory, one derived from personal experience. The British media — most notably the Daily Mail - inveigh against the unilateral extradition of UK citizens to the USA’s brutal prison régime. There is also some concern about extradition to other European jurisdictions — usually on the fringes to the south and east of the continent, regions where the British seem to have a visceral fear of corrupt officials and kangaroo courts.
But what many commentators seem to miss is the crucial legal connection — the extradition arrangements that ensure Brits can be shipped off to the US and many other legal banana republics comparable legal systems to face outrageous sentences are, in fact, embedded within the Extradition Act 2003. This is the act that enshrined the power of the European Arrest Warrant, the the act that was rushed through Parliament in the midst of the post-9/11 terrorism flap.
And, of course, this is the very act that is currently being used and abused to extradite Julian Assange to Sweden merely for police questioning (he has not even been charged with any crime), whence he can be “temporarily surrendered” to the delights of the US judicial process. Hmm, could this possibly be the reason for the delay in reforming the Act?
Let me guess, you think this is beginning to sound a bit tin-foil hat? Surely it is inconceivable that the British politicians and judges would delay righting a flagrant legal wrong that manifestly results in innocent people being unjustly extradited and prosecuted? Surely our government would move swiftly to protect its citizens?
As I mentioned, my theory stems from personal experience. Once again delving into the mists of time, in 1997 David Shayler blew the whistle on the wrongful conviction on terrorist charges of two innocent Palestinian students, Samar Alami and Jawad Botmeh. Their lawyer, the excellent Gareth Peirce, was immediately on the case, but the UK government dragged its heels for a year. Why?
During that time, the UK government tried to have Shayler extradited from France to the UK to stand trial. Government lawyers were confident of victory and delayed a decision on the students’ appeal against their convictions until the whistleblower was safely incarcerated in HMP Belmarsh, awaiting trial.
Except it all went wrong, and the French freed Shayler for being manifestly a political whistleblower, which in their legal opinion was not an extradictable offence. Only at that point did the UK government lawyers begin to work with Peirce on the Palestinian case, details of which can be found here.
So my theory is that the UK is dragging its feet about reforming the preposterous Extradition Act until it has Assange safely over in Sweden. However, they may be counting their chickens prematurely — and they should never, ever overlook the determination of the campaigning mother, in this case Christine Assange.
But in the meantime, while the UK continues to prostitute itself to the USA, how many more innocent people will have to suffer unjust and unjustifiable extradition?