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Last updated: October 16, 2012 9:01 pm
Theresa May was at the centre of a diplomatic rift with the US on Tuesday night after Washington voiced irritation over Britain’s refusal to hand over the computer hacker Gary McKinnon for prosecution in America.
The US state department said it was disappointed by the home secretary’s decision to deny Mr McKinnon’s extradition “to face long overdue justice” for his alleged hacking of Pentagon and Nasa computers.
Addressing MPs on Tuesday, Ms May said that Mr McKinnon – who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism – was in danger of committing suicide if sent to the US.
“After careful consideration of all of the relevant material, I have concluded that Mr McKinnon’s extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with his human rights,” the home secretary said.
Ms May added that despite widespread criticism of the US-UK extradition treaty, she thought the current arrangements were “broadly sound”.
However, she sought to appease those who consider the deal to be tipped in the US’ favour by announcing a new “forum bar” which would allow a British court to prevent prosecution overseas if it believed a UK trial would be fairer.
The surprise reprieve, which ends a decade of legal wrangling over Mr McKinnon, was greeted ecstatically by his family and human rights campaigners.
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader, joined MPs from all three main parties in praising Ms May. David Burrowes, Mr McKinnon’s local MP, tweeted: “Compassion and pre-election promises delivered today.”
However, the decision was criticised by Alan Johnson, Labour’s former home secretary, who noted that Mr McKinnon was accused of “very serious offences”.
“The US was perfectly within its rights, and it was extremely reasonable of them, to seek his extradition,” Mr Johnson said. “The home secretary has made a decision today [on Tuesday} that’s in her own party’s best interest; it is not in the best interests of the country.”
Downing Street said David Cameron had found out about the extradiciton block only on the morning it was announced. “It is entirely a decision for the home secretary and [the prime minister] supports that decision,” said the prime minister’s spokesman.
Number 10 added that “there have been discussions” with Washington over the issue.
According to the US embassy in London, this is the 11th time the UK has refused an extradition request from the US since the current treaty was signed in 2003, whereas Washington has never refused a request from London during that time.
But US officials said: “Our extradition relationship with the UK remains strong, as is demonstrated by the extradition of five alleged terrorists from the UK just last week.”
They pointed out that a recent review of the extradition arrangements by retired British judge Sir Scott Baker found the deal was “completely balanced”.
Campaigners for Talha Ahsan, a British Muslim and Asperger’s sufferer who was extradited to the US last month alongside the radical cleric Abu Hamza to face terrorism charges, accused Ms May of “double standards and blatant racism” for failing to give him the same treatment as Mr McKinnon.
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