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".
The British Home Secretary, Theresa May, yesterday defied American authorities by halting the extradition of British computer hacker Gary McKinnon, a decision criticised by the US State Department but welcomed with delight by campaigners and politicians across parties in the UK.
In a dramatic House of Commons statement, May told MPs she had taken the quasi-judicial decision on human rights grounds because of medical reports warning that McKinnon, 46, who has Asperger syndrome and suffers from depressive illness, could kill himself if sent to stand trial in the US.
The irony that May's most popular decision as Home Secretary was taken because of the Human Rights Act, which she has pledged to scrap, was not lost on her critics. But in a promised overhaul of the extradition laws that accompanied the decision, May indicated that future home secretaries would be stripped of the very power that she had used to save the computer hacker.
Janis Sharp, mother of hacker Gary McKinnon, becomes emotional at a press conference following a decision by British Home Secretary Theresa May not to extradite McKinnon. Photo: Oli Scarff
McKinnon's mother, Janis Sharp, said May had been "incredibly brave" to "stand up" to the Americans. She said she was overwhelmed after the "emotional roller-coaster" the family had been through in the past 10 years.
McKinnon could not speak when he first heard the decision but then cried and hugged his mother.
"He felt like he was a dead person," Sharp said. "He had no job, he didn't go on holiday ... he felt worthless ... Thank you, Theresa May, from the bottom of my heart - I always knew you had the strength and courage to do the right thing."
McKinnon's MP, David Burrowes, who had threatened to resign from the government if the extradition went ahead, said May had saved McKinnon's life: "Today is a victory for compassion and the keeping of pre-election promises."
McKinnon was first indicted by an American grand jury in November 2002 for hacking into US military computers, including the Pentagon and NASA, from his north London bedroom while he was looking for UFOs. He could have faced a prison sentence of up 70 years under US law.
The extradition order against McKinnon has been withdrawn and it will now be for the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide whether he should be prosecuted in Britain.
Gary McKinnon will not be extradited because he is suicide risk, says May.
A spokeswoman for the State Department, Victoria Nuland, said: "The United States is disappointed by the decision to deny Gary McKinnon's extradition to face long overdue justice in the United States. We are examining the details of the decision."
The US authorities have described McKinnon's actions as the "biggest military computer hack of all time". The Washington Post observed that the decision "could ignite tensions in an otherwise close transatlantic relationship", while the former White House counsel Douglas McNabb said the United States Attorney would be furious.
The decision, which is the first time an extradition has been halted under the 2003 US-UK treaty, prompted immediate delight from those who campaigned to prevent McKinnon's removal, and politicians from all parties.
Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he wanted to pay tribute to Sharp's determination to speak up for her son over 10 years. "I've long argued that I think it would have been wrong to send someone as vulnerable as Gary McKinnon to the United States and also I'm delighted that the Home Secretary has set out some plans about how we rebalance the extradition arrangements between the UK and the USA," he said.
The only discordant note came from the former Labour home secretary Alan Johnson, who said the hacker's human rights case had been rejected by judges in 2009 and claimed May had made the decision "in her party's best interest; it is not in the best interests of the country". He disclosed that the US authorities had been prepared to allow McKinnon to serve his sentence in a British prison when Johnson rejected McKinnon's earlier appeals.
May confirmed to MPs her intention to scrap the home secretary's discretion under the Human Rights Act that enabled her to prevent McKinnon's extradition. "Matters such as representations on human rights grounds should, in future, be considered by the High Court rather than the home secretary.
"This change, which will significantly reduce delays in certain cases, will require primary legislation."
She opened the door for more wide-ranging reform of the extradition process to reduce delays of up to 14 years by looking again at the provision of legal aid for terror suspects in national security cases and introducing a permission stage for appeals to UK courts.
The former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell told May the treaty still needed reform, in particular the standard of proof required. He hoped that no British citizen would be sent to the US unless there was "probable cause".
The Liberty director, Shami Chakrabarti, welcomed the McKinnon decision. "This is a great day for rights, freedoms and justice in the United Kingdom," she said. "The Home Secretary has spared this vulnerable man the cruelty of being sent to the US and accepted Liberty's longstanding argument for change to our rotten extradition laws."
But the family of Babar Ahmad, who along with Talha Ahsan was deported two weeks ago to the US on terrorism charges, accused the legal system of double standards. "We strongly welcome the decision not to extradite Gary McKinnon. We would not want his family to experience the pain and suffering we have all been enduring since Babar was extradited," they said.
"However, questions do need to be asked as to why, within two weeks, a British citizen with Asperger's accused of computer-related activity is not extradited, while two other British citizens, one with Asperger's, engaged in computer-related activity are extradited. A clear demonstration of double standards."
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