David Cameron has recently declared that he wants to get rid of the Human Rights Act. The Human Rights Act gets a lot of negative press because in some cases it enables foreign criminals to escape deportation. It’s not unknown for politicians to score a few cheap political points by reducing complex issues to a few simplistic sound bites, so getting rid of the Human Rights Act wholesale and replacing it with their own watered down bill of rights is a small price to pay if it gains a few votes.
Deportation and extradition to other countries is a serious matter and not something to be taken lightly. This country has a responsibility not to put people in dangerous situations. If, for example, we send someone to a country where there is a risk that they might be tortured, then this country is responsible for that, even if the UK doesn’t commit acts of torture itself.
Politicians have wasted so much time, effort and money trying to deport a handful of specific individuals out of the thousands of potentially dangerous people we have in this country just so that they appear tough on foreign criminals. For example, the case of Abu Qatada should not have got anywhere near the amount of attention from politicians and the press that it did. The absurd amount of money the government spent trying to get rid of him would have been much better spent elsewhere. Politicians do not need to get involved in individual cases such as this. Obviously it is a problem when legal cases take years to resolve, but the solution isn’t to crudely reduce everyone’s legal rights across the board. It’s far more complex than that.
I’m going to use the rest of this post to discuss extradition in general. We have certain punishments for crimes, because, rightly or wrongly, it’s been decided that these are the appropriate punishments. And if someone is at risk of a significantly higher penalty by being extradited to another country, then this extradition should not take place. As it is, the UK will not extradite someone if they face execution abroad, and what I’m arguing here is just a generalisation of that. Put simply, the UK should not extradite people to face punishments that the UK itself would consider unjust. This applies as much as anywhere else in the case of extradition to America, which has a very poor record when it comes to its treatment of prisoners, and is one of the few countries in the western world to still have the death penalty. For a country that is advanced in so many ways, it lags very far behind when it comes to human rights. Guarantees over potential punishments always need to be given before any extradition occurs to any country.
This doesn’t just apply to countries with harsh punishments, but also to countries with unsafe legal systems, which have a high chance of a miscarriage of justice. So we need to be careful with EU extraditions. The European Arrest Warrant makes it very difficult to block extradition to other EU countries, despite there being no guarantee of the standards of justice. Ensuring better safeguards in these cases is an area where David Cameron would be better advised to devote his efforts.
Furthermore, we should not under any circumstances extradite someone to another country for an alleged crime committed in this country. High-profile examples include computer hacker Gary McKinnon, and Richard O’Dwyer, who faced copyright charges in America over his TVShack website. But even though these two ultimately avoided extradition, it was not for the right reasons. The main issue has not been addressed.
Gary McKinnon has Asperger’s syndrome and was said to be at a high risk of suicide. But that could equally be the case with someone at risk of being imprisoned in the UK. Why are these factors more important if someone faces extradition abroad as opposed to imprisonment in their home country? It seems as though these reasons were used as an excuse not to have to deal with the real issue – that he never should have been considered for extradition in the first place because he had never set foot in America.
Some people have argued that it’s a grey area because although McKinnon was physically in the UK, his actions had their effects in America. But that doesn’t make it a grey area. Gary McKinnon was in the UK. While in the UK, he is clearly bound by UK laws. It really is that simple. Yes, it’s possible to cause problems in other countries while remaining in the UK, on the Internet or in other situations, but that doesn’t change anything. If his acts were criminal, then he can be tried in a UK court and subject to UK penalties. The American legal system is irrelevant to acts committed in this country.
However, reasons have not always been found to stop these unjust and illogical extraditions. The “NatWest Three” were three bankers who were extradited to America and then convicted and imprisoned despite being in the UK for the whole time when their alleged offences took place. It’s a disgrace that this was allowed to happen.
It’s time to look at extradition and deportation in a more mature and logical manner. Not as vote-winning rhetoric, but to ensure fairness and justice for all.