Sorry, Blog Action Day. I know you were actually yesterday, but today’s news that Gary McKinnon will not be extradited to the USA makes this year’s theme – The Power of We – that much more poignant today; the same day that 96 insulting verdicts of ‘accidental death’ look more likely to be overturned and fresh inquests held for the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy, allowing those responsible to be held to account at long last. So I hope you’ll excuse the delay. (That and I’m feeling poorly, therefore operating at an even slower pace than usual. Please bear with me and I promise not to cough or splutter over you.)
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, today ruled that the state of Gary’s mental health would put him at great risk of suicide if sent to a foreign prison, thus it would be incompatible with his human rights for the extradition to proceed. Case closed. She also announced plans to introduce new rules to give UK judges the power to decide whether extradition suspects should be tried in the UK or abroad.
Gary stood accused of hacking, from his home, into dozens of US military computers between 2001 and 2002, causing $700,000 worth of damage. He was first arrested in 2002 before an order for his extradition was made in July 2006. He faced 60 years in a US jail if convicted.
He also has Asperger’s syndrome and always maintained that he was simply looking for evidence of UFOs.
Having established that he is not be fit to stand trial in the US, it is now for the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, to decide whether Gary should face trial in the UK.
Why on earth has it taken so long?
The Free Gary campaign has been unstinting throughout, led by the tireless and inspirational Janis Sharp. As you’ll already know, David has backed the campaign, most memorably by recording the Graham Nash song ‘Change the World’ with Bob Geldof and Chrissie Hynde – a direct plea to President Obama for mercy.
The debate still rages over whether the 2003 US-UK extradition treaty is unfair and one-sided. For the UK to seek to extradite a US citizen, evidence of guilt would have to be produced before a US court. However, this is not so when the situation is reversed. Each senior member of the current coalition government, Conservative and Liberal Democrat alike, voted against the treaty’s “lopsided nature” in 2006 while they were in opposition.
The US maintains that such criticism is unfair. No person can be deported from the UK to the US to stand trial unless the charge is a crime in both countries, and an extradition request can be refused if prosecutors in the UK believe the charges would be best tried in a UK court. Furthermore, whereas the UK has refused seven extradition requests from the US, the US has been much more obliging and has not refused a single request.
However, no US citizen has ever been brought to the UK for an alleged crime that took place on US soil.
The US-UK extradition arrangement, it is also argued, brings benefits to both countries. Hands up who in the UK isn’t glad to finally see the back of Abu Hamza after eight years of expensive legal wrangling and God-knows how much taxpayers’ money squandered. Be honest.
Gary McKinnon’s fate has been up in the air for a decade, his life spent in limbo, under arrest for longer than any other British citizen, causing untold anguish to so many. Punishment enough, some might say, not least when you consider that his crime would receive merely a six-month ‘community service’ sentence in Britain. Others might add, tongue firmly in cheek, that that’s ten years for the Pentagon and NASA, possibly between them if need be, to come up with much stronger passwords.
Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, who served under the previous Labour government in 2009 and 2010, has ignited the debate by declaring that “the Home Secretary has made a decision today that’s in her own party’s best interest; it is not in the best interests of the country.”
Just two weeks ago her Conservative government approved the extradition of Talha Ahsan, also from London and a sufferer of Asperger’s syndrome. He is accused of running jihadist websites to raise money for terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The Crown Prosecution Service has said it has insufficient evidence to prosecute him in Britain.
Talha Ahsan was deported to the USA on terrorism charges along with co-accused Babar Ahmad, whose family today accused the British legal system of double standards and its government of “what appears to be blatant old-fashioned racism under which all British citizens are equal but some are more equal than others.” I think they have a point.
Disgracefully, Babar Ahmad’s arrest under anti-terror legislation in December 2003 resulted in more than 70 injuries, including bleeding from his ears, for which he was awarded £60,000 in compensation by the Metropolitan Police who later admitted that he had been severely assaulted. He was released without charge after six days in custody.
Critics and cynics cry foul, insisting that this was a populist decision rather than a principled one. Perhaps. Also, yes, Gary does happen to be white; has had celebrities speaking up for him as well as the support of the general British public and the shamelessly Tory and (sadly sometimes) influential Daily Mail. The McKinnons’ MP, David Burrowes, had even vowed to resign if his constituent was deported. What tremendous backing to have. Although, sadly, I do share the view of Babar Ahmad’s family – that being Muslim changes the picture somewhat, and it leaves a very sour taste in the mouth – this day is a positive one and reaffirms once more that people who do not give up and keep shouting even when their voices are strained sometimes are heard in the end. May that give them the encouragement they need to carry on shouting and to encourage others to support them, both in solidarity and out of shame.
What now for Julian Assange and his human rights? Or those of Richard O’Dwyer? The student is appealing against an extradition order on copyright charges (his website directed visitors to sites where they could watch US TV shows) and faces up to 10 years in an American jail just so that, yet again, an example can be made. Only nine per cent of Britons believe he should be tried in the US compared with 26 per cent who feel he should face trial in the UK, while 46 per cent insist he should not be prosecuted at all.
So, The Power of We. #FreeGary is done, he has finally been freed of his torment; who wants to help #FreeTalha, #FreeBabar and #FreeRichard next? As David sang, we can change the world, and, well, we can always celebrate World Food Day, which is today, some other time.