In the name of compassion, Britain must reverse this shameful decision

By Daily Mail Comment
Last updated at 1:51 AM on 03rd July 2009

Eight years ago, a solitary geek sat at his computer in his flat in North London.

A sufferer of Asperger’s syndrome (a mild form of autism), he was convinced that the U.S. Government was concealing evidence of aliens visiting Earth. So he tried to hack into its computers to prove his theory.

To his amazement, he found this remarkably easy to do; their security was, frankly, pathetic.

There was, as it happens, no evidence of ET. But then – in 2002 – the hacker was tracked down, and here is where an amusing saga turns sinister.

The mighty U.S. Government, in an excess of post-9/11 zeal, was determined to make an example of Gary McKinnon. They wanted him in an orange jumpsuit in a U.S. court and they wanted to throw the book at him.

And our own Government – run by Tony Blair in his most George Bush-loving phase – wanted the Americans to be happy.

So rather than prosecute him in Britain, which would have been perfectly reasonable since he committed the offence here – as he airily confessed to investigators when they caught up with him – they agreed to have him extradited to the United States.

This was despite the fact that the British police admitted that they had more than sufficient evidence to prosecute McKinnon, as they have done with other computer hackers.

To get their hands on him, American officials invoked the new extradition treaty signed between the two countries after 9/11 and which was supposed to apply only to terrorists. Mr McKinnon, even by a stretch of the most fevered American imagination, is not a terrorist.

The Treaty allows America to demand that pretty much any British citizen can be plucked from this country and deposited in a U.S. courtroom with only the most cursory of evidence against them.

But, astonishingly, it doesn’t give Britain the same rights over U.S. passport holders. We have signed an agreement that puts our citizens at risk of arbitrary punishment while protecting theirs. So far, twice as many Britons have been sent to the U.S. as Americans have been brought to Britain.

Gary McKinnon admits that he broke the law and deserves to be punished for that. But it’s impossible to understand why he should be dragged into the brutal U.S. court system, where he could face a sentence of 60 years in jail. And where his Asperger’s would, according to one of Britain’s most distinguished psychiatrists, make him a significant suicide risk.

The Mail believes that McKinnon has behaved stupidly and possibly even criminally. He may even deserve to be jailed; the maximum sentence here is five years. But sending the eccentric, slightly dysfunctional young man to America would be totally disproportionate and an affront to natural justice.

It is, frankly, beyond belief that the Home Office is still colluding with this wholly misguided and politically motivated attempt by America to crush a vulnerable man.

With the departure of Tony Blair – now there’s a real war criminal – and a new administration in charge in the U.S., Britain could change its position without damaging the Special Relationship. Our Government has the power to stop the extradition process now, simply by charging him here in Britain.

The new Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, who has already proved flexible enough to reconsider ID cards, should turn his attention to Gary McKinnon, and ask the CPS to reverse its decision not to prosecute him.

And the British Government should explain quietly but firmly to our American friends that this woefully one-sided extradition agreement will be promptly revoked if they ever again attempt to use it in a similar case. It was introduced to deal with terrorism and should be used only for that purpose.

It is sad that our closest ally should – out of what seems to be splenetic rage at the way its security service has been humiliated – behave with such heavy-handed arrogance. But that British ministers should aid and abet this persecution shames us as a nation.

Gary McKinnon may be a wrongdoer, but he is also a British citizen – and a vulnerable one at that – who deserves the protection of his Government. In the name of both sanity and compassion, we call on Mr Johnson to think again.

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