Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

Extradition Roulette

Today’s decision not to extradite Gary McKinnon, accused of unlawfully accessing US Department of Defence computers back in 2002, was not a victory in the struggle against unjust laws but it was a victory for one man in his struggle against an injustice. McKinnon faced likely death behind bars in America for a crime which wouldn’t even warrant a custodial sentence in Britain. His case drew widespread support from the public and Gary became a celebrity victim in the campaign to reform Britain’s extradition laws.

Under the Extradition Act of 2003, not only can a person can be extradited to a country they have never visited to stand trial for an offence which potentially isn’t a crime, or is only a minor crime, in their own jurisdiction, but the measly hearing they receive is unable to even consider the evidence (or lack there of it!) offered against them. This results in people being extradited when the evidence against them is insufficient for conviction in a British court or even for prosecution. The accused can be sent to countries where they face draconian punishments considered grossly disproportionate in the UK, countries with inhumane prison conditions, countries where they will face a kangaroo court or countries in which their guilt will be determined by a state official rather than a jury. British standards of justice are not so high that we cannot reasonably demand that others meet them as a condition of extradition.

The public support for McKinnon was doubtless the real driving force behind the decision of the Home Secretary, fierce opponent of the Human Rights Act, to reverse the decision to extradite (supposedly) on the grounds that it would be “incompatible with his human rights” due to his being a suicide risk. But the accused have rights regardless of whether they are sympathetic characters or not and the decision to follow through with an extradition shouldn’t be left in the hands of populist politicians.

Britain’s broken extradition laws can’t be fixed by selective enforcement. When ministers pass judgement on who shall be extradited and who shall not, regardless of the legal technicalities or the standard of evidence offered against them, extradition becomes nakedly political. Would a much less sympathetic person, the specifics if the case remaining unchanged, have received this pardon? Would somebody motivated by Islamic fundamentalism? Would somebody who had been the subject of Royal displeasure? Would somebody who was an opponent of the Government or who had been accused of a more sinister crime expect the same intervention?

Going through with the extradition of Gary McKinnon would have made him a martyr for the cause of extradition reform and the Government would have found itself under mounting pressure to offer up an actual legislative remedy. Gary McKinnon’s extradition was sacrificed on the alter of public opinion so that the Extradition Act might live. The case wasn’t dropped to make the extradition process more just but to ensure that it may remain unjust.

Intervention: A Path to Syrian Democracy?

It’s not hard to find the case for military intervention in Syria compelling. In the Youtube age, tyrants can’t easily suppress the evidence of their crimes, and there’s something very powerful about the visual realm for us humans. If the images burned into the public consciousness by the photojournalism of the Vietnam war can be credited with fuelling American domestic opposition to that war, then visual evidence can play just as potent a role in making the case for war.

Such scenes of human tragedy appeal to human compassion and rightly overpower the weak verbal arguments customarily offered against intervention: we shouldn’t meddle in other people’s affairs, it’s not our problem, it would cost too much money in a time of domestic austerity, etc. But having demonstrated the most sincere moral fortitude in resolving that “something needs to be done” our comrades proceed with understandable haste, but also unfortunate carelessness, to conclude of military intervention that “this is something, let’s do it!”

With the best of intentions it is argued that the condition of the Syrian people will be improved by military intervention, unfortunately a substantive democracy doesn’t necessarily follow from the removal of a dictator. Neither is it clear that the removal of Assad would bring an end to the humanitarian crisis rather than simply reverse victim and culprit.

As much as I wish the civil war were a simple case of ‘the people’ versus ‘the dictator,’ the reality is that the Syrian rebels represent just one side of a sectarian schism. One of the few commonalities between the otherwise diverse array of factions that constitute the rebellion is that their fighters are almost exclusively Sunni Arabs. Sympathies for conservative Islamic politics is widespread among the militias, although not universal. Salafist militias, from those sympathetic to the House of Saud to those aligned with Al-Qaeda, have found a home within the wide tent of the Free Syrian Army.

It’s not just despots in Damascus who fear the arrival of the rebels, Alawites face reprisals for perceived complicity in the Ba’athist regime while Christians and Kurds have also been the victims of sectarian attacks. A tyranny of the majority is no less a tyranny for those who are its victims – it offers to cast aside one injustice only to replace it with another.

Even if we give the rebels the benefit of the doubt and close our eyes to any sectarian disaster that may be unleashed by their victory, freedom for the Syrian people is not a cause which can be advanced by subjugating their fate to the interests of external powers.

Each of the region’s powers is playing its own game. To the House of Saud and their allies, there is no greater evil than democracy, which is why they proceeded to swiftly exorcise it, using fire-power supplied with the blessing of the British government, when protests hit the streets of Bahrain in 2011. This was not the first time the UK supported the suppression of democratic opposition in the Arab world and nor was it the last: British arms continue to be sold to both the Saudi dictators and their minions in Bahrain. It’s clear that for our selectively outraged rulers, it’s not a matter of democracy versus dictatorship but a game of our dictators and theirs.

Dangerous chancers among the interventionists argue that the cynical interests of Britain’s ruling class can be exploited, that despite the hypocrisy of Britain backing Bahrain’s dictator even more shamelessly than Russia backs Assad, our Government’s impure motives can be harnessed to bring freedom to Syria. They may not be so eager to play with fire if they were the ones at risk of being burned.

The Assad regime play the same role to the Iranian mullahs and Russian arms dealers that the rebels do to Saudi sheikhs and British arms dealers. Turkey’s soft-Islamist government, meanwhile, hasn’t missed its opportunity to pursue its own regional interests. They know that the crutch which supports the rebels in their time of need will become the shackle that binds them in power, in this sense it is not so much that the Turkish ministers are playing the role of hawks but that of vultures.

Whichever power wins out, the Syrian people will lose; the resulting government, whether superficially democratic in form or not, will be the instrument of forces beyond their control. There is no path to democracy in transforming freedom fighters, whether genuine or merely soi-disant, into pawns of sheikhs, mullahs or European powers. One day the Syrian people will assert their will and take control of their own lives but, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise, there are no shortcuts to democracy.

Delaying Tactics: Britain’s Colonial Victims Deserve Better

Are appeals being used as a delaying tactic by those trying to avoid justice? That was the accusation made by the Government last week after the High Court rejected the final appeal of Abu Hamza et al. against their extradition to the United States on various terrorism related charges.

The final appeal of the five suspects was undoubtedly little more than a last-ditched attempt to delay their extradition to a country with an often outrageously harsh prison system, but theirs was not the only stalling attempt thwarted in the High Court that day. It also rejected the Government’s latest attempt to prevent the case of three Kenyan torture victims from being heard.

The Government’s challenge that the case could not be fairly tried due to the amount of time that has passed since the crimes were committed was thrown out by the court in a hearing which lasted less than five minutes, but has taken up several months of the proceedings. This delaying tactic was the second attempt by the Government to avoid accepting responsibility for the crimes committed against its colonial subjects through legal trickery; last year the High Court rejected the Government’s push to have the case dismissed on the grounds that legal responsibility for the crimes of the colonial administration passed to the independent Republic of Kenya rather than the government of the United Kingdom.

The legal action, which has been repeatedly stalled by the Government, began back in 2009 and it’s expected to be another year before the trial starts in proper (assuming there are no further pre-trial shenanigans from the Government). One of the four elderly claimants, Ndiku Mutwiwa Mutua, has already died during the drawn-out proceedings, which raises the question: can any of the victims hope to see justice done in their lifetimes?

Quite possibly not, if precedent is anything to go by. Following the forced depopulation of the native inhabitants of the island of Diego Garcia, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, to make way for a US military base, the Chagos Islanders fought a series of legal battles. In 2000, after a struggle lasting decades, the High Court finally ruled that the Islanders had a right to resettle their homeland. This ruling was effectively overturned by the Privy Council a brief time later. That ruling was itself deemed unlawful by the High Court. A ruling which was again overturned, this time by the House of Lords. The case drags on in the European Court of Human Rights to this day.

The three surviving Kenyan claimants, all elderly, are unlikely to survive a decade of Government delaying tactics and it may well be that neither they, nor the Chagossians expelled from their homes over forty years ago, will see the justice they deserve.