Gary McKinnon and the Daily Mail crusade

The Daily Mail has recently been running a campaign over several issues to stop the British computer hacker, Gary McKinnon, from being extradited to the USA to face charges over cracking American military and NASA computers. It has printed heartstring-tugging stories about how an American jail would make mincemeat of him and railed against a British government which is too obsessed with being “in” with America to have any compassion for one of its own citizens who has Asperger’s syndrome, and printed quotes from various polticians, celebrities and medical experts on why he should not be extradited. The latest seems to be that the Tories are to force a Commons vote on the subject during an “opposition day” today.

I’m obviously pleased that a mass newspaper has decided to take up this story, but there is obviously the stench of hypocrisy here. This treaty has been in force since 2003, and many others have been extradited in the past, including one (a US citizen) who has been held under administrative restrictions in New York which prevent him doing anything which could be interpreted as “martial training”, or from talking in his cell. The probable reason why the Mail did not make a fuss then is because that person is a Muslim. As with police brutality, which the Mail has no real record of campaigning on when it takes the form of black men being choked to death in police cells, they make a fuss when it’s a white man — or better still, a pretty white girl — who’s on the wrong end of the cosh. We saw the same with the NatWest Three.

This act should be struck down on principle, because it is allowing British citizens to be extradited for acts committed in the UK. Regardless of whether the computers hacked into were here or abroad, we have a Computer Misuse Act which penalises cracking other people’s computers without their consent. If something is illegal here, it should be prosecuted here. If it is not, then there is even less reason to extradite them, even if the act involves exporting a substance which is legal here to a country where it is controlled; and let’s be honest about this, would we extradite someone to any old country for exporting a perfectly legal substance there, as if British citizens had to learn the laws of every country in the world? Of course not, so why is a Scottish couple under threat of extradition when the country happened to be the USA? It could soon reach the point where a British citizen is extradited for injuries to an American citizen sustained in a pub brawl in Tottenham!

Whether the conditions McKinnon face are as brutal as those mentioned in the Mail report yesterday is doubtful, because they appeared to be about state prisons, which take most of the violent offenders including murderers, rather than federal ones. What is more worrying is the possibility of ending up in a “communications management unit” of the sort normally used to house Muslim prisoners with ‘terrorist’ connections, some of them clearly political. It has also been suggested that Asperger’s sufferers actually do well in prison because it offers consistency and routine; this, however, depends on various factors, such as whether there is arbitrary brutality, whether the rules are enforced consistently or capriciously, and whether any odd behaviour he exhibits annoys anyone who is given to violence (I have heard of a mentally-ill man being stabbed to death on a London bus by a man he annoyed by talking to himself, for example). There is also the issue of family contact, and being in the federal system, he could be held in a prison in New England or California, or anywhere in between, and moved from one to another at any time.

The fact that the Extradition Act forbids the challenging of evidence in a British court makes no difference to the McKinnon case, of course, as what he did is not disputed. However, it is a clear example of the inadequacies of the British “unwritten constitution”, as other countries have rock-solid guarantees of protection from extradition; some countries do not extradite their own citizens at all, while others require the other state to provide evidence, as is the case with the USA. There seem to be two particular problems facing British citizens required for extradition in the UK. One is that the British government is unwilling to say no to power, particularly American power, as we saw with their following America into two disastrous wars in less than two years; the other is the fiction that any western judicial system is as good as ours, when in fact many have lengthy pre-trial delays (e.g. Spain, Portugal), different standards of presumption of innocence, unreliable legal representation, and miserable prison conditions.

We need robust protection of British citizens from extradition. No extradition for acts committed in the UK. No extradition without sufficient evidence and an opportunity to challenge it. No extradition where trials have been held in absentia, or the accused has not been informed because of some bureaucratic mistake. Finally, prison conditions must meet a given standard in terms of food, protection from violence and from arbitrary and capricious restrictions on speech, contact etc. The state demands loyalty, to itself and the Queen, but if it is unwilling to protect its citizens from the designs of selfish foreign powers and their capricious rulers and officials, it becomes nothing more than a bureaucracy and a provider of services for money, and is no more worthy of anyone’s loyalty than Tesco or any other such organisation.

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