Why Britain must rip up US extradition treaty
America’s international standing as a fair and just country does not match its status as the world’s greatest democracy. When it comes to basic human rights it, is there in the gutter alongside some of the world’s most toxic, tinpot dictatorships and authoritarian regimes.
So there’s little surprise that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange fears being extradited to the USA, where some politicians and Pentagon officials have already called for his execution, and US Attorney-General Eric Holder admits his government may invoke the US Espionage Act.
But it’s not just persecution and prosecution that Assange should fear: either way, the wheels of justice can be agonizingly slow in a process that could take years. And in the case of the Guantanamo detainees, there is no end in sight – the majority of them have not been charged but simply forgotten.
Having stepped inside US prisons – both military and civilian – I can tell you there is nothing civilized about the penal institutions in the United States. Four days of filming inside Guantanamo and half a day at one of California’s largest young offenders’ prisons provided me with enough material to reach this conclusion, bearing in mind that, as a journalist, I was just shown “the good bits”! Having also viewed closed circuit TV footage of detainees in US institutions being strip and cavity searched was equally traumatic, and for those who showed the slightest resistance a procedure would follow which in my view is tantamount to gang rape. Frankly, I was appalled by what I saw inside American jails and the interviews and research which followed did not make easy reading. I wondered how the US could really describe itself as a civilized, mature democracy. And if you doubt my judgment here are a few statistics to play with in a prison system where 70 per cent of the inmates are non-whites.
- The US has a higher percentage of its citizenry in prison than any other country in history.
- Twenty five per cent of the world’s prison population – around 2.3 million – are caged in America.
- More than a quarter of US inmates are black males between the ages of 20 and 39, and over the course of a lifetime 28 per cent of all black American men will have spent some time behind bars in what can only be described as a racist-driven judicial system.
As 2011 dawns, the British prime minister, David Cameron, is faced with some hard choices this year, none more difficult than probably deciding whether or not to scrap our extradition treaty with the US and refuse to hand over a group of British citizens to Barak Obama’s America. And make no mistake, if he wanted to, he could tell the Obama administration to “get stuffed”. His coalition government is stronger than the previous Labour governments.
Under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown human rights, civil liberties and freedoms were diminished both at home and abroad. It was Blair’s government that introduced the one-sided 2003 extradition treaty to please and appease the Bush administration. Legislation drawn up in panic and haste is never a good idea, nor was it wise to allow America to extend its jurisdiction into the UK for that is exactly what has happened. And I wonder if the legislation was really drawn up by UK lawyers, since a close inspection of the original documents reveal the liberal use of American English.
I would urge Cameron to resist all of the existing US extradition requests just as he would if the same demands were being made by some banana republic.
This has nothing to do with innocence or guilt, by the way, but everything to do with the just treatment of human beings. Justice should be meted out equally, without fear or favour, but in America the accused are often judged by the colour of their skin, religion and class. The evidence is there for all to see – America’s human rights record is appalling, the prison system is a disgrace and the way it treats its own convicted citizens, let alone foreigners, is primitive.
Gareth Peirce, an internationally acclaimed and respected solicitor based in London, explains in her book Dispatches from the Dark Side: “Guilty pleas resolve 97 per cent of US trials, an extraordinary statistic inevitably achieved by the defendant’s apprehension of what lies ahead – not just for the ‘worst of the worst’ – and a desire to avoid, at any cost, the US law’s most extreme application.”
A number of her clients, including Syed Talha Ahsan, Babar Ahmad, Adel Abdel Bary and Khalid al-Fawwaz, have been held in British prisons for a record number of years fighting extradition to the US. All of these men protest their innocence and would welcome their day in court – a British court. However the evidence against them is either so flimsy or non-existent that police in the UK have no intention of wasting public money on trials which will end up being laughed out of court.
This takes us back to the 2003 US extradition agreement in which the Blair government tied the hands of the UK judiciary beyond sound judgment. Under this agreement any slight allegation made by the US should be regarded in British courts as solid proof. By the way, this is not a two-way system. Should the UK ever wish to extradite a US citizen the evidence supplied must be well documented, concrete, factual and be able to withstand the scrutiny of a US judge. Britain’s legal system became the basis for most others in the world. It is based on presumed innocence and a trial by a jury of one’s peers which emanates from our rights as set out in the Magna Carta of 1215, a noble document which has stood the test of time. The 2003 extradition treaty is a complete betrayal of those basic rights. A victim of the treaty faces being locked up without evidence and has no right to a trial by jury – and gone is the presumption of innocence.
We cannot allow anyone in UK custody or under “house arrest” like Julian Assange to be extradited to the US. You just have to look at the treatment of its own citizens to realize this. Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old US army private accused of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks, has been held in solitary confinement for the last seven months, despite not having been convicted of any crime. Manning has been kept alone in a cell for 23 hours a day, barred from exercising in that cell, deprived of sleep and denied even a pillow or sheets for his bed.
Unsurprisingly, he now relies on anti-depressants to cope with the effects of isolation. No date for a court hearing has been set. Make no mistake, this sort of treatment is torture and we, as a civilized nation, cannot send anyone in to the hands of the US judicial system which openly tortures its own citizens as well as others. By the time his brains are completely scrambled and he’s addicted to his medication, I’m sure some sleazy, government prosecutor will offer him a plea bargain which is another disgraceful and routine feature of US justice. In exchange for dishing the dirt, real or imagine, on Julian Assange, Manning will be pressurized to cut a deal.
I would urge the British prime minister to tear up the 2003 extradition treaty now, tell Obama to get stuffed and instruct the Foreign Office to issue a travel warning advisory for any UK citizens contemplating a trip to America.