When the history of Anglo-American relations is written, the few years after 9/11 will be remembered for Tony Blair assuring George Bush that Britain stood 'shoulder to shoulder' with America. With the smoking debris of the twin towers relatively fresh in the memory, there were dark murmurings about organized terrorist groups seeking nuclear material in Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa. Colin Powell solemnly assured the UN that the United States had evidence that Saddam Hussein posed a threat. Intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic uncovered thousands of terrorist plots.
In this dark and tense atmosphere, to stay as close to America as possible, Britain signed a new extradition treaty with the US which gave more protection to Americans than to Brits. Passing into law as the Extradition Act 2003, it made it easier for America to extradite British suspects than it was for Britain to extradite American ones. As things stand today, if Britain accuses an American of plotting a terrorist attack against London, the US government will only allow him on a plane to face justice if Britain shows that it has enough evidence to mount a good case against him. But if America accuses a Brit of plotting an identical attack against New York, Britain must put him on a plane to the States without so much as asking America to show that it has a good case at all. It is a lopsided legally-sanctioned double standard, and previous ministers have admitted as much.
The highest profile victim of this travesty-of-justice waiting to happen is forty-three year old hacker Gary McKinnon. McKinnon suffers from Asperger's syndrome, which means that he both exhibits obsessive behavior and finds it very difficult to deal with big changes in his surroundings. Gary has said that he made it his personal mission to hack into American government computer systems in 2001 and 2002 to look for evidence of UFOs. "I found out that the US military uses Windows," he said, "and having realized this, I assumed it would probably be an easy hack if they hadn't secured it properly." He became so obsessed that he could think of little else. He was eventually caught when he miscalculated the time difference, and started controlling a computer while an operator was sitting in front of it.
This was not what Parliament had in mind when it signed the Extradition Act. But, unmoved, the American government have claimed that McKinnon was "staging a very serious attack on US computer systems" and that he has caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage. They want to extradite him. They have offered minimal evidence to back up their claim that he caused enough damage to even qualify for extradition, and because of the lopsided treaty, they don't have to. As an Asperger's sufferer, McKinnon was driven to collect information. American Law lecturer, former criminal defense attorney and former Member of the Texas Criminal Justice Advisory Committee on Offenders with Medical and Mental Impairments, Joseph Richard Gutheinz Jr., has argued that McKinnon is unlikely to get a fair trial in the US because "the American judicial system turns a blind eye to the needs of the mentally ill." Given that in the US he is likely to be tried in a military tribunal -- the same tribunals used for inmates of Guantanamo Bay -- he is doubly unlikely to get a fair trial.
The change of government has given McKinnon and his family hope. "Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have supported Gary in the past," his mother said. "Last year Mr Clegg even came with us to hand a letter appealing for help to the Queen, so we are really pleased the Tories and the Lib Dems are now in government."
Indeed, one of the items at the top of the new Home Secretary's in-tray will be whether to reconsider McKinnon's case. She could easily write to the Director of Public Prosecutions and argue that because McKinnon committed his crimes in Britain, he should be tried in Britain. That is what has happened with similar cases in the past.
That would be the right way to put an end to this sorry story. But the wider point is even more important. This situation has only arisen as a result of a deal with the US which is craven and one-sided. William Hague has insisted that in the future, our relationship with our transatlantic cousins will be 'solid but not slavish.' Renegotiating this unfair legislation would be a good place to start.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.
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