October 17, 2012
THERESA May, the British Home Secretary, risked diplomatic tensions with the US yesterday when she invoked human rights to halt the extradition of the computer hacker Gary McKinnon.
Mrs May delighted Tory backbenchers with Britain's first refusal to extradite a suspect to the US since 2003. Her decision was greeted with dismay in Washington but was praised by those who have campaigned against the allegedly one-sided nature of the extradition agreement.
A US State Department spokeswoman said: "The United States is disappointed by the decision to deny Gary McKinnon's extradition to face long overdue justice in the United States." And a former White House counsel dismissed the reasons as "laughable".
The computer hacker's mother said that she was "overwhelmed" at the outcome of the 10-year fight to prevent her son from being sent to the US to face charges of hacking, which carry a 60-year jail term. Janis Sharp said that Mrs May had been "incredibly brave" to "stand up" to the US.
"I'm overwhelmed, incredibly happy," Ms Sharp said. "It's been awful watching Gary go downhill so badly but such a relief to watch him smile for the first time in many years."
Her son could not speak when he heard the news because he was so emotional, she said.
Mr McKinnon, 46, from Wood Green, North London, was accused by US prosecutors of the "biggest military hack of all time" when he accessed 97 government computers in 2001. He claimed that he was looking for evidence of UFOs.
The Home Secretary told MPs that Mr McKinnon, who has Asperger's syndrome, was "seriously ill".
Only days after telling the Conservative Party conference that she wanted to scrap the Human Rights Act, Mrs May invoked the same law to stop the extradition. She told MPs that his was a "difficult and exceptional case" and that if Mr McKinnon were sent to America the medical evidence showed that he would be very likely to kill himself.
"I have concluded that Mr McKinnon's extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr McKinnon's human rights," she said.
It would have breached article 3 of the act, which says that no one shall be subject to degrading treatment or punishment, she said.
Edward Fitzgerald QC, who represented Mr McKinnon, said: "It was only thanks to the Human Rights Act that she had the power to stop this extradition."
It will now be for Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, to decide whether Mr McKinnon should be tried in Britain.
Mrs May announced a number of changes to the extradition laws after campaigns by supporters of the NatWest Three, Giles Darby, David Bermingham and Gary Mulgrew, who were extradited to the US in 2006. A so-called forum bar will be introduced to proceedings to enable British courts to decide whether a person should stand trial here or abroad. She is also to abolish the Home Secretary's discretion to intervene in cases - the very power she used to halt the extradition.
The Home Office is also to consider ending automatic rights of appeal on extradition decisions, imposing a strict timetable on deportation proceedings and stopping legal aid for foreign terrorism suspects fighting attempts to remove them from Britain.
David Burrowes, Mr McKinnon's MP, said: "It's a life that's been given back to Gary in a long dark tunnel."
Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights pressure group Liberty, said: "It is a great day for compassion and common sense."
Alan Johnson, a Labour former Home Secretary, claimed that Mrs May had made a decision that was "in her own party's best interests but it's not in the best interests of this country".
"Gary McKinnon is accused of very serious offences," he said. "The US was perfectly within its rights and it was extremely reasonable of them to seek his extradition."
David Rivkin, former White House counsel to George Bush Sr, said the decision would go down "very badly" in the US.
"It's really deplorable," he told BBC Radio 4's The World At One programme. "The justification by the Home Secretary is laughable. You have an individual who says he is going to commit suicide - American penal institutions have an excellent record of stopping people who are trying to commit suicide. Under this logic, all a person needs to say to not get extradited is 'I'm going to kill myself'. Under that argument, why do you even arrest anybody?"
In a statement, the family of Babar Ahmad, a terrorism suspect who was extradited with Abu Hamza and Syed Talha Ahsan this month, criticised "blatant old-fashioned racism under which all British citizens are equal but some are more equal than others".