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Extradition Laws Are an Ass

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Whether or not Julian Assange is guilty of any offence, the manner of his likely extradition to Sweden is a cause for sadness, and a symptom of deep problems in our increasingly unaccountable and internationalised legal system.

The Supreme Court decided by 5-2 that Assange could be lawfully extradited to Sweden under the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) scheme, of which Britain is a member. In a nutshell, this scheme is designed to make it easy for prosecuting authorities in member countries to bring people back from other signatory countries for trial. Sounds efficient, but in practice it means we have sacrificed some previously sacred principles.

In the past, British courts would insist that a country seeking extradition produce evidence of a 'prima facia' case against the accused. This meant that statements had to be produced before a British court which, were they to be accepted at trial, would prove the defendant's guilt. We were rightly a little suspicious of foreign courts, not least because outside of the Commonwealth countries, juries don't tend to feature. In other words, 'justice' as we understand the word, is not done properly in much of the world.

It's not just within Europe of course that we've slackened our grip on principle. We're locked into a treaty with the USA that means were we to seek to extradite a US citizen to the UK, we would have to produce evidence of guilt before a US court, but when the situation is reversed no such obstacle exists.

The treaty was clearly a product of post 9/11 hysteria when the USA came to believe that 'Londonistan' was a hotbed of Islamic terrorism and that we Brits couldn't be trusted to deal with the problem ourselves. With hindsight, the threat was overblown, but now we're stuck with an unjust, lob-sided agreement whose chief function has been to hound Asperger's sufferer and UFO enthusiast Gary McKinnon to the brink of suicide. (Theresa May has prolonged his agony to an extent I would classify as cruel and unusual punishment).

Our willingness to give people up to foreign jurisdictions is a symptom of a profound loss of belief in the rightness and superiority of our own long-standing legal principles. Whatever its occasional flaws, the British system of trial by jury, in which every man and woman in the dock may look their accuser in the eye and be judged by their peers from a presumption of innocence, is an expression of a profound national belief in decency and fairness. Its roots go back more than a thousand years. You surrender such an historic system at your peril.

Assange is appealing to the European Court of Human Rights. I hope I'm wrong, but it seems highly like he'll lose: why would a European court undermine the system of European Arrest Warrants? The function of the ECHR is to attempt to impose a uniform standard across the member states under its jurisdiction. And the fact that many (if not all) of those member states operate to a lower standard than the UK makes us the biggest losers.

European justice ain't British justice. Our courts aren't perfect, but who, given a choice of any jurisdiction in the world, wouldn't prefer to be tried in a British court in front of a British jury? Some things are worth being chauvinistic about, and our ability to hold fair trials is one of them. That being the case, we should be doing all in our power to bring other countries up to our standards, not sacrificing them on the altar of international cooperation.

Everyone who stands on British soil should be entitled to the protection of our courts. That means no extradition without a proper examination of the evidence, and proper proof that the person whose extradition is being sought won't be subject to treatment we would consider to be anything less than civilised.

Sadly, the plight of Julian Assange is unlikely to stir the British public sufficiently to bring about change. It'll take something truly shocking for politicians to see votes in it. So consider the not unlikely possibility of an ordinary Brit - let's call him Stephen Smith, an accountant from Nuneaton and father of three - having his credit card details stolen by a criminal in the US and his card used for seriously nefarious purposes such as buying explosives. Mr Smith is charged as the obvious suspect in a terrorist plot, and whipped away in manacles to a Godforsaken US prison pending trial without even the barest examination of the evidence. Traumatised beyond belief and unable to afford proper representation, Mr Smith doesn't survive to see his day in court. Several months later, the real criminals are caught.

That, I fear, is the kind of horror we'll have to witness before the extradition injustice is righted.

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