At first it was difficult to get people too excited about extradition. It’s something that happens to other people, and anyway, if they didn’t want to be extradited then they shouldn’t have committed the crime, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works anymore. In 2004 I was introduced to the first people to be caught in the tentacles of the Extradition Act 2003, soon dubbed the ‘NatWest Three’. Over time, their case became front page news up to and including their extradition in 2006.
That they became a cause célèbre was because they sought to highlight the injustices in a piece of legislation that allows over 100 foreign countries to request the extradition of a UK citizen without presenting a scrap of evidence to support the request. We set about exposing this horrid piece of UK legislation to anyone who would listen, and that’s how the campaign grew. We forecast that if we failed to get the law changed, the floodgates would open, and they have. In 2003, the year before the Extradition Act came into force, there were a total of 113 requests for the extradition of UK citizens. By 2010, that number had exceeded 1,400.
It’s easy to say that if you’re not guilty then you have nothing to fear, but this misses the point. The act of extradition is like a summary sentence in itself. In British law, you are innocent until proven guilty, but on extradition you will almost inevitably be cast into a foreign prison to await a trial that could be months or even years away. You will be thousands of miles from friends and family. Unable to work to support yourself or your dependants. You may not speak the language. You may not be able to afford legal representation. And you may be detained in squalid or dangerous conditions.
In circumstances like this, many people will choose to plead guilty to something that they didn’t do, simply to get home as quickly as possible. That cannot be right. It certainly offends my sense of natural justice.
It took the NW3 three years and a guilty plea to get home from America. But in all honesty, they were the lucky ones and they recognise it. Not many people can have had a Prime Minister ensure that they are given bail rather than being thrown into prison once extradited. It remains to be seen what David Cameron will do to help Chris Tappin in the dying hours before his forcible removal to the US. The NW3 had money to pay for their legal fees, in a land where you really do get what you pay for. I fear for those who don’t.
Unnecessary and disproportionate
What is frustrating is that there is simply no need for these injustices. The solution to the problems in the Act has long been apparent to members of all British political parties. In 2006 when in opposition, the Tories and Lib Dems argued very persuasively that requiring countries to support their requests with evidence and allowing a British court to decide whether a case should best be heard here in the UK (known the ‘forum bar’) would dramatically reduce the number of unnecessary and disproportionate extraditions of British citizens. These basic safeguards would have the desired effect yet not allow people accused of crimes to escape justice. But when push came to shove, the Tories backed down. After all the posturing, the necessary amendments to the Extradition Act were left languishing on the statute book and not voted in to force.
In 2006 the Blair Government tried to deride our efforts to highlight the invidious nature of the extradition laws as merely a highly expensive PR campaign – the subtext being it resulted from the efforts of rich men to hide from the truth of their guilt. Aside from the fact that the campaign has been run pro bono, that neatly sidestepped the real issues at play – that unless the Government tightened the law then, time and again, we’d see British citizens caught up in the nightmare extradition trap, irrespective of the blatant injustice it caused, and without the resources to fight back. And so we continue to see desperate cases such as those of Gary McKinnon, Richard O’Dwyer, Babar Ahmad and now Chris Tappin to name but a few. That’s why I’m moved to continue to do what little I can to help each of them. I’m determined that one day our efforts will result in their experiences no longer being repeated.
We’ve seen the Home Office-commissioned Scott Baker review, the Joint Committee on Human Rights report, the Home Affairs Select Committee’s review (on going) and the Liberal Democrats review into US-UK extradition arrangements led by Sir Menzies Campbell, yet still the law has not changed.
So six years on, I feel angry and frustrated that the politicians, whose duty it is to safeguard the interests of their citizens, can be so cavalier in pushing this matter into the long grass. In matters of basic liberty, it is inevitably the poor and uneducated who are most disadvantaged by bad law, because they do not have the means to defend themselves. They need their Government to do it for them.
When will the penny drop?
Melanie co-founded the specialist public relations agency Bell Yard. She also set up the campaign group Friends Extradited.