Archive for the ‘The Americas’ Category

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.