The Other Norway Option? Theresa May should refuse more US extraditions

In 1999, Norwegian Supreme Court refused extradition to the USA on the grounds that their prison system did not meet ‘their minimum humanitarian standards’. More recently, Ireland refused to extradite an alleged terrorist on the grounds that the US penal system represented ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ which amounted to ‘a breach of the constitutional requirement to protect persons from inhuman and degrading treatment and to respect the dignity of the human being’.

The UK government by contrast has often shown itself hesitant to intervene when the USA has demanded extradition, even on comparatively trivial charges: Ian Norris for price fixing and Richard O’Dwyer for copyright infringement had not even broken any offences in the UK at the time of the alleged crime; Christopher Tappin was arguably a victim of a sting operation by the federal authorities (for selling batteries that could have been used in missiles). Norris’ original extradition was overturned by the House of Lords and O’Dwyer was only spared because of a deal being struck.

The most famous recent case has been that of Gary McKinnon, whose extradition was stopped by then home secretary Theresa May due to fears for his mental health. It took a decade to get to that stage after several of May’s predecessors were too fearful of endangering the so-called ‘special relationship’.

The current case of Lauri Love is almost identical: like Mckinnon he has been accused of hacking (although as a member of ‘Anonymous’) and also like McKinnon has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. It has yet to be seen whether Theresa May or Amber Rudd will intervene in his case. However, as Norway and Ireland have shown there are good reasons why the UK should perhaps refuse more or even all extraditions to the USA.

degrading treatment, violence and inhumane conditions are routine

Forgetting Guantanamo Bay, the American penal system has been repeatedly condemned by groups including Amnesty International over concerns issues such as ‘extreme solitary confinement’. ‘Mass incarceration’ in the USA has lowered standards to the state where degrading treatment, violence and inhumane conditions are routine. The sheer numbers are astounding: more prisoners are incarcerated than were in Stalinist gulags and roughly 1 in 35 American adults are under ‘some form of correctional supervision’.

There is also the issue of judicial procedure and the extradition treaty itself which famously removes the need for the USA to provide prima facie evidence as well as other protections. The main reason to refuse extradition is the possible use of capital punishment. However, that the USA imposes completely disproportionate custodial sentences is rarely taken into account. Gary McKinnon would only have been given at most a few years in the UK for a similar crime but was threatened with up to 70 years in the USA.

Whether those extradited would actually receive a fair trial or the chance to prove their innocence or mitigate their sentence is open to doubt. McKinnon had essentially embarrassed the US government. You have to wonder how fair any court would have been when even New Jersey prosecutors expressed their wish to see the hacker ‘fry’.

Sentences in such cases are often so long because the USA, in contravention of UK practice, routinely deploys a form of coercive plea bargaining. Prosecutors simply add other offences to force defendants to accept a plea bargain: prison time is reduced but defendants do not go to trial, where they may have been acquitted. Both Christopher Tappin and the Natwest Three for fraud were forced to go down this route when extradited.

It is time for a new atlantascepticism when it comes to extradition

97% of federal cases and 94% of state cases end in such deals. To allow such a form of blackmail to be used on British citizens would be a crime. If the extradited suspect does take the risk of actually going to court they will often be on remand for years (the backlog due to the sheer volume) and enjoy the similar appalling conditions.

When defendants actually get to court they have to go through the usual trial by media - including a humiliating ‘perp walk’ where even those not being tried for violent offences are often in chains and a jumpsuit. If they are lucky enough to be able to afford a decent lawyer they may have a chance; if not they are taking an awful risk, with some court appointed defence lawyers being known to nap in court even during capital cases.

The UK government lives under the fairly reasonable assumption that the due process offered by one of our closest allies is analogous to ours and therefore sees it as necessary to pretty much approve any suspect for extradition. It has not sought to revise a patently unbalanced treaty. But the USA is not accountable to any international court and, according to Linda Wolley, has often flouted international law by ‘breaching the procedures of the extradition treaties’.

Theresa May should find the same courage she did in the Gary Mckinnon case and not extradite Lauri Love. It is time for a new atlantascepticism when it comes to extradition; the UK should not be terrified or emotionally blackmailed by the USA over the fear of losing a ‘special relationship’. Britain should move on from something that does not really exist to enter a new more aloof and pragmatic phase of foreign policy. That means British citizens should not face extradiction until that close ally can guarantee humane conditions, reasonable sentences and decent trials.

More about the author

About the author

Stewart holds a PhD in eighteenth century political history from UCL, having previously studied for a BA and MA in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

He is currently working as a Part-Time Tutor for Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department as well as helping to create and launch an online historical archive of magazine-style feature articles written by history graduates called The Past.

Follow Stewart on Twitter.

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