Comment: One more injustice in our extradition battle with America

Melanie Riley: Lives are being needlessly and cruelly ruined as a result of an ill-founded extradition regime.
Melanie Riley: Lives are being needlessly and cruelly ruined as a result of an ill-founded extradition regime

By Melanie Riley

Ignoring well-founded public concern on an issue is rarely a smart move for government. The voices of over 200,000 people supporting Richard O'Dwyer have today been summarily dismissed by a home office spokesperson. But why?

During last week's prime minister's questions, David Cameron was confronted by Caroline Lucas MP on why the government had done nothing to change our rotten extradition laws, despite a clear call from two separate parliamentary committees, a Commons motion in December last year and well-supported public petitions to do just that. The prime minister's answer was a study in opacity, hiding once again behind the findings of the Scott Baker Review which reported last September that our extradition arrangements were, in broad terms, just fine – a view that was met with outright astonishment by parliamentarians, lawyers and human rights groups alike.

Lucas, with support from Dominic Raab, Sadiq Khan, John McDonnell and countless others, has been at the forefront of a growing call for immediate change, polarised around four individual cases which share one common theme: British citizens on the verge of being extradited to America on allegations unsupported by evidence that they have used computers to commit crimes.

In none of these cases has the defendant been in the US when the crime is alleged to have been committed, and all of the cases could be prosecuted here if not for the refusal of the British prosecuting agencies to consider this course of action. Why?

Of those four cases, two are well known - Gary McKinnon & Richard O'Dwyer, thanks to media campaigns. Yet the others, Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan are less so. These two men have been incarcerated in the UK for years without charge, and it has recently come to light that the Crown Prosecution Service was never given the vast majority of the supposed evidence against them. Instead this evidence was sent directly by the Metropolitan Police to the FBI. One hundred and forty thousand people signed a petition in support of prosecuting Babar in the UK – these voices, like those of Richard O'Dwyer's supporters, were also ignored by government.

Despite the obvious unfairness, the stream of contentious US extradition cases over the past eight years continues unabated. This is in the face of huge parliamentary pressure since 2005 to change the law to stop British citizens being hauled off to America for crimes alleged to have been committed in the UK.

In 2006, then-attorney general Lord Goldsmith bought the agreement of the Tories and Lib Dems to step away from their demands for legal change by signing a protocol with his US counterpart that would supposedly lead to far fewer such cases in the future. This agreement was supposed to oblige prosecutors to discuss and agree between them where the case might most obviously be tried.

The protocol worked—at least for the US. Home office statistics reveal that since the start of 2004, not one single US citizen has been extradited to the UK for crimes alleged to have been committed on US soil. The traffic is very much one way, however.

Politicians know exactly what is wrong with the law, but successive governments won't fix it. In 2006, every single MP in the government voted in favour of the exact amendments that are once again being called for: that the United States should have to produce evidence in support of its extradition requests - as it is happy to do for almost every other country on the planet - and that a judge here should be able to take a view on whether a trial might best be heard here or in the US.

The omens for change aren't good, however. In parliament on Wednesday, Mr Cameron finished his response to Caroline Lucas MP thus:

"We continue to look at this issue. We will ensure that we do the right thing for our country, but people should not think that it is a very simple issue, because it is not."

Actually, prime minister, it is. As things currently stand, we have an extradition system that allows British citizens to be hauled off without trial to America for crimes which, if committed at all, have been committed in this country. Even Lithuania has negotiated a better treaty with the US for its citizens than we have. Yet the Home Office continues to refuse to listen to the will of an informed public. The tail is wagging the dog. Unelected mandarins are advising ministers to simply bolster Lord Goldsmith's guidelines. This will not reverse the public's lost confidence in our extradition regime.

Our message is clear: stop prevaricating and hiding behind a special relationship; stop sacrificing the plight of British citizens as collateral for political expediency. Lives are being needlessly and cruelly ruined as a result of this ill-founded extradition regime. Extradition should be the last, not first, resort in the UK's fight against crime. Introduce a right to independent, transparent and challengeable judicial consideration of the correct forum for trial and insist that prosecutors are required to demonstrate a prima facie case against the defendant before subjecting British citizens to the very harsh constraints caused by extradition on a whim.

Melanie Riley is the coordinator of Friends Extradited.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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