How much longer will the UK subject its citizens to an extradition regime that acts like a mindless and robotic catapult, flinging people across the Atlantic at the mere whim of US Homeland Security? Yesterday Theresa May, home secretary, promised to unveil shortly the terms of reference of a long-awaited review of a one-sided treaty that has recently been disowned by even its own author. David Blunkett, the Labour cabinet minister who signed the extradition act, admitted last week that he had “given away too much away” to the Americans.
One person who hardly needs reminding of that is Chris Tappin, a constituent of mine. A suburban golf club president, Mr Tappin is in the middle of court hearings to determine whether he will be extradited to the US to face allegations (which he denies) that he conspired to export batteries to Iran. These supposedly could have been destined for use in Hawk missiles. It’s not for me to pre-judge Mr Tappin’s case, but the right forum for a fair hearing is a British court of law. After all, like Pentagon hacker Gary McKinnon, Mr Tappin never left British soil when the alleged crimes were being committed.
Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti put it well the other day as she reminded the government to honour promises made by both coalition parties to review the “rotten” extradition act: “If Mr Tappin really has been up to no good in Orpington, let the authorities come up with hard evidence in a British court.” For Mr Tappin and many others, it is now a race against time. The Home Office review is likely to last at least a year from the moment of the publication of the terms of reference and that may be too late for him and for many others. Mr Tappin’s extradition hearing will be held in a few weeks’ time.
This leaves the coalition government with a real problem of fairness. It has already granted a temporary reprieve to Mr McKinnon, facing a possible 60 year jail term for allegedly hacking into 97 US military and NASA computer systems, apparently in search of classified evidence for the existence of UFOs and other alien life forms. That was the right decision. And having allowed that precedent to be set for Mr McKinnon, the home secretary should surely consider showing similar indulgence to others in comparable situations.
Suspected offenders must of course face trial, but people also need protection against unfair or unnecessary extradition. The last government has left behind a system that’s “rotten” in a number of ways. First: its one-sidedness vis-à-vis the US. The 2003 act removed the need for certain countries requesting extradition to demonstrate there was a case to answer. The problem is that the US did not reciprocate: it can extradite from the UK on the basis of a simple request – hearsay affidavit by the prosecutor is in effect enough.
However, the US does not give the UK reciprocal rights to extradite US citizens without prima facie evidence, a stiffer evidential requirement. US citizens continue to be protected by their constitution from being extradited on the word of an overseas government. When it comes to extradition, we truly are a junior partner. Reciprocity is an important principle. If the US believes in the constitutional principle that people cannot be extradited without evidence, it should not expect us to do just that.
Leaving aside the issue of reciprocity, there are arguably a number of reasons why there should be no extraditions to the US without prima facie evidence. Non-residents are unlikely to get bail and could spend years in prison pending trial. Pressure to engage in plea bargaining is endemic in the US, where long sentences are a real incentive for the innocent to plead guilty. The Act does not even permit a UK court to refuse to extradite someone even if the offence took place in the UK and it would be in the interests of justice not to extradite.
That’s why we need the immediate introduction of an amendment to the 2003 extradition act stating that extradition could denied if the alleged law-breaking was ‘conducted’ in the UK. Such an amendment was passed in 2006, but the last government refused to let it come into force. This left people such as Gary McKinnon and Chris Tappin at risk of being extradited, even though they are accused of committing their alleged crimes when they were physically in the UK.
If the law is deemed cruel in cases such as Gary McKinnon’s, who has Aspergers, it is equally so for the likes of Chris Tappin, the primary carer for his wife of 37 years, who suffers from Churg-Strauss Vasculitis. Their cases are high-profile ones, but a number of other UK citizens are in similar positions. The coalition government must address the needs of all those left in tantalising limbo pending the outcome of this review. I await its terms of reference with great interest and so do many others.