Does Scottish UFO hunter Gary McKinnon deserve 60 years in a US prison?
GARY McKinnon’s timing was disastrous. For a 13-month period between 2001 and 2002, the then 35-year-old Scotsman hacked into nearly 100 Pentagon and NASA databases. He claims he was searching for extra-terrestrial energies and cover-ups of UFO activity.
Not long after McKinnon got busted the 2003 Extradition Act was enacted. This was an agreement drawn up between the UK and the US in the wake of September 11. Though originally designed to fight terrorism it has been used as a tool to combat a range of other crimes. The US demanded McKinnon’s extradition and so his expected sentencing to six months of community service in the UK turned into a potential 60-year prison term in the US.
McKinnon and his mother, Janis Sharp, have spent the past decade trying to fight the extradition order, urging for McKinnon to be tried at home instead. Backed up by the Daily Mail, Sharp has urged for reform of the 2003 Extradition Act. Meanwhile, the WikiLeaks phenomenon has heightened US sensitivities to hacking and security breaches, a situation which hardly plays in McKinnon’s favour.
McKinnon has said that he was smoking a lot of marijuana at the time of his hacking ventures and he has since been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Doctors are warning he may commit suicide if forced to board a plane to the US. But at least he has garnered a lot of sympathy. The Daily Mail‘s Affront to British Justice campaign has been backed by a number of MPs — including the now UK prime minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg — as well as celebrities, medical experts and civil liberties groups.
This week, the campaign took a leap forward as the House of Commons called on the government to reform the 2003 Extradition Act, as well as the European Arrest Warrant regime, which is currently being invoked to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to Sweden. At the Commons hearing, Conservative MP Dominic Raab said: “Gary McKinnon should not be treated like some gangland mobster or al-Qaeda mastermind.”
A central gripe of the reform proponents is that the 2003 Extradition Act places unequal demands on the British and UK judiciary systems. The US can demand the extradition of British citizens based only on “reasonable suspicion”, whereas US judges can reject a British application if no “probable cause” is shown. In other words, if the UK wants to extradite someone from the US, a prosecutor must produce proof of the crime, but not the other way around. Since 2004, 29 UK nationals or dual nationals have been extradited to the US, and only five US nationals have been handed over to Britain.
As the name of the Daily Mail campaign suggests, the 2003 Act is seen by some as an affront to British citizens’ rights at the hands of a foreign nation; it is regarded as a breach of British sovereignty.
Those concerns are valid but it is also curious that similar appeals to the value of sovereignty and the right of nations to try their own citizens is glaringly absent in other, high-profile extradition cases. We don’t hear the great and the good of British politics, civil rights campaigning and editorial boards appealing to such principles in the case of African dictators or Muslim preachers for instance.
In fact, in the wake of September 11 many Human Rights proponents, lawyers and anti-war activists argued for curbs on national sovereignty. At this time, there were widespread calls to set up an international criminal court which would act as a supra-national body and determine who should be indicted for crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court in The Hague was established in July 2002.
Of course McKinnon hardly bears any resemblance to the kind of criminals whom the ICC was established to deal with: perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Nevertheless both his case and the cases brought up in The Hague have involved overriding individuals’ rights and nations’ right to try their own citizens – and leaders. The national sovereignty that the Daily Mail campaign and others have defended in McKinnon’s and the UK’s case ought to apply other nations, too.
McKinnon, widely described as a vulnerable, even confused, individual who made a mistake but meant no harm, perfectly illustrates how laws introduced on the back of September 11 have been extended to cases way beyond the remit of counter-terrorism. But the right of sovereign nations to try their own citizens should be held up as a principle rather than as something to be invoked only selectively.