Extradition decision shows double standards

Picture of Talha Ahsan standing on some stepsOn Tuesday the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that the computer hacker Gary McKinnon would not be extradited to the USA to face charges of hacking into NASA’s and the Pentagon’s computers before and after 9/11, on the grounds that his Asperger’s syndrome would put him at enormous suicide risk following a review of his mental state. She also announced that the government would be considering a “forum bar” in which a court would decide which country is the appropriate place for a criminal charge to be tried. This, of course, comes two weeks after several Muslim men, including at least two British citizens, were extradited to the USA on charges related to alleged offences which did not take place in the USA but involved computers there or plans for events to take place there. To many in the Muslim community, there is an obvious double standard.

McKinnon’s campaign has been supported with very high-profile press coverage, including in the Daily Mail which has featured it on the front page at least twice (including yesterday’s). Yesterday, the paper had several pages of coverage, including a commentary from James Slack (notorious for coverage on immigration which plays fast and loose with statistics, much picked over on Five Chinese Crackers and other media monitoring blogs). The same papers coverage of the other men’s campaigns has been almost entirely negative, celebrating when they lost their final appeals and were promptly sent on their way. It was widely remarked on by Muslims that as Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan’s cases were bracketed with Abu Hamza’s, the latter was presented as the public face and as usual his scary, freakish public persona was given a great deal of prominence and his disability referred to almost every time he was mentioned. Talha Ahsan has the same disability as Gary McKinnon, and neither this fact nor even his case had any significant amount of coverage. Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan have already spent several years behind bars in a maximum-security prison, and I have previously written that the former should have been freed rather than considered for extradition, as his offence is unlikely to have attracted a sentence that long (or at least, resulted in that length of stay in prison) if it were treated as being under British jurisdiction.

The family of Babar Ahmad put out a statement welcoming the McKinnon decision but noting that May’s conduct “demonstrates her willingness to make vulnerable individuals like Gary suffer in her determination to extradite others”, and attributing it to “blatant old-fashioned racism under which all British citizens are equal but some are more equal than others”. Yahya Birt, a noted Muslim activist who used to run the City Circle discussion forum in London, wrote on his Facebook page that “it was an open secret that this reform would happen once Talha and Babar were on their way”. Even the National Autistic Society, which publicly supported Gary McKinnon, did not do the same for Talha and this is how they explained their decision (it is in the comments, after various subscribers, including me, asked them about this discrepancy):

The NAS were approached to support the case of Talha Ahsan. Unfortunately, the NAS is not able to get involved in all individual cases and our legal campaigning resources are currently targeted at other issues including cuts to health and social care services.”

It’s vital that the needs of people with autism are taken into account and appropriate adjustments are made in criminal proceedings.

The NAS has previously raised concerns about extradition arrangements where people with Asperger syndrome are involved.

Arzu Merali, on the Politics.co.uk website, drew a similar conclusion to Babar Ahmad’s family:

The five Muslims were mentioned by Ms May in passing again as terrorism suspects whose cases exemplify all that is right with a really wrong treaty. Only on this day did we hear any analysis from commentators - media or political - on why the treaty was wrong, or how it breached (in this case Gary McKinnon’s) rights. What else are Muslims supposed to glean from that, except that they are not considered human, let alone equal?

There have been some commentaries supporting McKinnon’s extradition, pointing out that there are ways of preventing suicides in jail (not least by providing accommodations to his condition), that people with Asperger’s syndrome do not always go to pieces in jail but could be quite comfortable in the structured environment, and that what he did was extremely serious and is not just the “UFO hunting” it is made out to be. The problem is that we in the UK cannot guarantee what sort of prison he will be housed in when in the USA; as it is a federal offence it will not be one of the infamous state penitentiaries, but it could well be a heavily isolated prison (such as a Communication Management Unit or a SuperMax, both of which mean no visits with bodily contact), on the other side of the USA, which would make family visits rare and expensive. As for the seriousness of the offence, we do have laws in this country which regulate unauthorised access to others’ computers and, for that matter, terrorist training and fundraising.

We all accept that when we go to a country, we agree when we enter — when we pass through a border post, for example — that we are subject to the laws of that country. We do not when we do business with people in another country, whether by phone, internet or any other means. If the computers are in the USA, they have the responsibility to make sure they cannot be remotely accessed, especially from another country if they are militarily sensitive. If that is to change, there should have been separate international agreements establishing who has jurisdiction over cases where an act was committed in one country that had effects in another. If such a treaty had ever been struck, it certainly has not been mentioned in any of the discussion about the McKinnon case or any of the others. The arguments in favour of extraditing are often based on legal convenience — that the evidence is in another country and other defendants are on trial there. However, justice is not what is convenient for those charged with administering it, and it cannot be done on the cheap.

Alan Johnson, former Home Secretary who favoured McKinnon’s extradition when in office during Blair’s government, accused May of acting in her party’s interests rather than the country’s and that if such treaties were not honoured, other countries would be less willing to honour extradition treaties with us. However, Britain is already much more diligent about honouring such treaties than other countries are, and this applies not only to extradition treaties but also to such agreements as those concerning parental abduction. At the same time as treaty the 2003 Extradition Act is based on was signed, similar agreements were offered to other countries in Europe, which refused them. We also freely send British citizens to other countries in Europe on arrest warrants that concern events that happened years ago and where the other country has not kept the people affected abreast of legal developments, or otherwise failed in due diligence. This seems to be particularly common in Spain and Portugal.

The validity of extradition treaties in general is not what is in dispute here; what is at stake is an agreement which gives the USA extraterritorial jurisdiction over any action that has any connection to the USA, even the use of a “.com” domain. Part of this seems to be our political classes’ obsequiousness to the demands of foreign states, which may be a consequence of loss of empire and a perception of Britain as a weaker country than it really is, but the government’s behaviour over McKinnon suggests that the Tories always accepted that there was something wrong with the extradition treaty, it seems that dealing with suspects from the 9/11 era was too dirty a job for British justice with its human rights scruples. The attitude of both the press and the government was hypocritical white libertarianism in action: civil liberties are only for “people like us”, and repressive laws that target uppity brown people are only a problem when they are found to apply to whites as well. Muslims know who this government and its supportive papers care for, and it’s not them.

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