No Licence For Your Petty, Petty Petty Crime

by Quinn

Time has now run out now for the NatWest Three (or Enron Three, depending on your viewpoint); as I write they are on an aeroplane bound for Texas where they are due to attend a bail hearing tomorrow and eventually stand trial for fraud.

There are good reasons to be concerned about the 2003 Extradition Act under which the three men are being removed from the country, primarily the fact that US prosecutors have not been required to provide prima facie evidence to the UK authorities when requesting extradition, and it is this issue that has most vexed organisations such as Liberty. There is also a concern that the three may not be granted bail, and so could languish in gaol abroad away from their families for two years awaiting trial, although how well founded that fear is considering the nature of the alleged crime I do not know.

But I think that there has been an unpleasant tone to much of the defence campaign for the three suspects. Richard Lambert of the CBI, speaking on Sunday AM this week, said that “no one is going to care much about what happens to three bankers”, but to me it seems that it is only because the defendants are bankers that they have featured so high up the news pecking order. Had these three been accused of more serious crimes, or been members of a less prestigious profession, then I doubt there would have been such a fuss about the level of evidence required to extradite them, it would just have been a case of “let’s get rid”.

As an example, take a look at the Daily Telegraph’s petition to John Reid requesting him to step in to prevent the extradition. The paper has probably been the most vociferous critic of the 2003 Extradition Act, at least with regards the NatWest Three, and in part its petition reads

We, the undersigned, believe your Government approved a manifestly unfair extradition treaty with the United States. It was done with good intentions – to help fight against terrorism – but the outcome has been highly damaging to our national interest…

…The treaty is being used by the US legal system not to capture bombers but to bring to trial in America British business folk.

Or, to put is another way, “Now look hear, we were quite happy with the extradition act in theory, when we thought it was about shipping over dusky skinned rag-head terrorists who aren’t really British anyway to our minds, but did you know that in practice they are going after the likes of us Daily Telegraph reading ABC1 professional types? It’s just not on”. If it sounds like I am being unfair and putting words into their mouths then that is only because that is exactly what I am doing; but it is still the grim impression I get from reading about the Telegraph’s campaign. Some statements made during the Common’s debate last night echoed this feeling, that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the act, just the disquiet that comes from it not being used exclusively against terrorists.

As a result the NatWest Three’s defence has centred more on the claim that it is unfair that the men are extradited when they could stand trial in this country, and that as the US Congress hasn’t ratified their act there is currently no reciprocal arrangement in place whereby British authorities could extradite American citizens with the same ease; but this is a poor defence.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the current extradition arrangements, it is surely correct in principle that American investigators can seek to try foreign suspects in the States; listening to some you would imagine that this was the first ever case of British citizens being tried abroad, but it is hardly a unique proposal. As it is, Steve at The Sharpener points to this FT piece that suggests that not only do the NatWest Three have a case to answer in the US, but it is conceivable that they could have been extradited under the old, pre-2003 rules.

As for reciprocity (if, indeed, that is a real word), if that is the issue then we could just support our government in its attempts to get Congress to fulfil their side of the bargain, as they may well yet do. Strangely, that is a something the defence campaigners haven’t argued for, but if the complaint is that the Americans are dragging their feet on the issue then this is the most obvious remedy.

For me some of those who have sought to defend the NatWest Three have chosen the wrong battleground. There are sound, solid civil liberties arguments against the 2003 Extradition Act; but in implicitly agreeing with it insofar as it relates to evil terror suspects some of the supporters have abandoned the moral high ground; that is, if they were really on the moral high ground in the first place.