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Uploaded: 04 July 2003

Blunkett has stripped us of protection

No wonder he kept so quiet about his one-sided US extradition deal

Isabel Hilton
Friday July 4, 2003
The Guardian

When the US and the EU signed a new extradition agreement last week, it was done with a fanfare. The deal, it was said, would enhance the fight against crime and was an important step towards healing the breach between Europe and Washington.

When the British home secretary signed a new extradition agreement with the US in March, there was no fanfare and no public comment. Details of what had been negotiated - in unprecedented secrecy - were hard to get hold of for two months. Now that they have become public, it is clear why Mr Blunkett would prefer us not to know: the agreement effectively removes safeguards that have protected British citizens from the risk of US judicial abuse, and hands them over, on request, to their fate - at a time when the US has enacted legislation that has dramatically reduced civil rights.

Until now, the US government had to offer evidence against the suspect before a British court. Thanks to Mr Blunkett, that has gone. All that will be required is that the US provide evidence that Joe Bloggs is who they say and Mr Bloggs is theirs. (Perhaps without Derek Bond, the septuagenarian Brit detained at FBI request in South Africa on the grounds that he was someone else, even that requirement might have gone.)

If, on the other hand, the British government should wish to extradite a US citizen, it will have to make its case, as before. The Home Office defence against the charge that its eagerness to please does not seem to be reciprocated is that US citizens are protected by the US constitution from any such measure. Quite so. Mr Blunkett does not seem to think it his duty to protect British citizens at all.

The government argues that the new agreement brings extradition law into line with arrangements we have with other countries. It is true that our extradition arrangements with the EU and members of the Council of Europe allow extradition without a prima facie case being made. But, as the human rights organisation Justice points out, there are important differences: these arrangements are reciprocal and the countries concerned have signed the European convention on human rights and other treaties that bind them to an international standard of judicial conduct. They can be held to account at the European court of human rights and can be subjected to political and diplomatic pressure if they abuse the rights of a British citizen. None of this applies to the US, a country that has, in the past two years, introduced legislation that allows foreign nationals to be arrested, tried before secret military tribunals and executed, without any requirement to disclose details.

And while there is an understanding that the UK would not allow extradition where the death penalty would be imposed, it offers no guarantee on conditions of imprisonment - a prisoner could, for instance, be kept on death row forever, or transferred to a military court, or added to the collection of souls in limbo in Guantanamo. As for US willingness to listen to international opinion, we have seen enough of Washington's contempt for the basic protections of the Geneva convention, not to mention the new international court of justice, to suspect that international protest would not have the slightest effect. Consider the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the suspected terrorist extradited from France to face trial in the United States. France has protested vigorously - but to no effect - about the use against Mr Moussaoui of material supplied by France to the US in a different context, in clear contravention of the terms of the extradition.

The US had hoped to persuade other European countries to sign up to these appalling arrangements, but they refused. Mr Blunkett would no doubt argue that the US system of justice can be trusted with the fate of any British citizen. But the United States is like the curate's egg. Perhaps the judicial standards of the state of Vermont could be trusted, but would you really want to find yourself in court in Texas?

The most notorious request that the UK dealt with in the aftermath of September 11 was for the Algerian pilot Lotfi Raissi, who was detained for five months in Belmarsh high security prison after the US sought his extradition on suspicion of involvement in the September 11 attacks. He was eventually released when a British judge ruled that there was no evidence against him. Under Mr Blunkett's new treaty, Mr Raissi would be incarcerated in the United States. In fact, under the new treaty - which is retrospective - he still might be, if the US were to try again.

And the evidence against him? According to Amnesty International: "The US authorities' reasons for seeking Lotfi Raissi's extradition included the fact that his identity and profession fit a certain profile: an Algerian man and a Muslim, a pilot and a flight instructor in the USA." So what if he's not guilty. He just has to look the part.


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