Home secretary Theresa May has blocked the extradition to the United States of London computer hacker Gary McKinnon.
McKinnon has been called the 'biggest military computer hack of all time' by the US authorities and was due to face charges over hacking into military computer systems — charges which could have seen him imprisoned for up to 60 years. Originally arrested in 2002, he has been fighting the extradition attempt for 10 years, a fight which included two failed appeals before a High Court judge ruled McKinnon was at risk of suicide if extradited. McKinnon has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. The home secretary said:
"After careful consideration of all of the relevant material I have concluded that Mr McKinnon's extradition would rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr McKinnon's human rights. I have therefore withdrawn the extradition order against Mr McKinnon."
The extradition treaty between the UK and the US has been the subject of much criticism since it was put in place in 2003 under the Blair government (remember that 'special relationship'?). A report by the House of Commons’ home affairs select committee earlier this year called it 'one-sided'. The main bone of contention is that the UK needs to prove probable cause when applying to extradite a US national to the UK, but only reasonable suspicion is required to extradite a UK national to the US. Human rights group Liberty have also campaigned for fairer extradition laws.
Legal blogger David Allen Green, AKA Jack of Kent, offers a slightly different view, saying the media coverage has been misleading:
"The allegations also do not relate to a few isolated and chance examples of hacking, where Mr McKinnon perhaps opportunistically took advantage of lax US security, but instead to a sustained hacking exercise which took place over fourteen months and involving 96 computers in five US government departments, and which came to an end (it seems) only with his detection and arrest. It should not thereby be underestimated how serious the allegation are."
The family of the recently-extradited Babar Ahmad have also questioned the decision, accusing the government of double standards:
"We strongly welcome the decision not to extradite Gary McKinnon - we would not want his family to experience the pain and suffering we have all been enduring since Babar was extradited.
However, questions do need to be asked as to why, within the space of two weeks, a British citizen with Asperger's accused of computer related activity is not extradited, while two other British citizens, one with Asperger's, engaged in computer related activity are extradited. A clear demonstration of double standards."
So could this upset that carefully-crafted 'special relationship'? The Washington Post thinks it could cause some tension. Our friends over the pond were none too pleased when Scotland's national administration freed Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi in 2009 though David Cameron was quick at the time to distance himself from the action. US extradition expert Douglas McNabb and former White House adviser David Rivkin also disputed May's decision, telling the BBC that it is 'laughable' and suggesting that the US Attorney's Office could ask Interpol to issue a red notice, meaning McKinnon could be arrested if he left the UK.
Photo by normko in the Londonist Flickr pool.