Hacker Gary McKinnon wins fight to stay in Britain
COMPUTER hacker Gary McKinnon wins fight to stay in Britain in first case of British government refusing to extradite someone to the US
The shock decision will be hailed as a significant milestone for those who have campaigned against the perceived one-sided nature of Britain’s extradition agreement with the United States
It is the first time the British government have refused to extradite someone across the Atlantic since the new agreement came into force in 2003 and will likely cause anger in Washington.
Speaking in Parliament this afternoon, Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed that she would halt Mr McKinnon’s extradition because it would be “incompatible with his human rights”. The 46-year-old suffers from Aspergers Syndrome and depression and his supporters have warned that he would be at risk of suicide if he was held overseas. After seeking medical and legal advice, the Mrs May has concluded that Mr McKinnon would not be fit to stand trial in the United States. Instead it will be up to the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide whether a trial should be conducted in the UK.
Mrs May’s decision is controversial because only two weeks earlier the government approved the extradition of Talha Ahsan, a south Londoner accused of running a jihadi website who also suffered Aspergers. Mr Ahsan’s family believe the decision on Mr McKinnon was deliberately delayed until after Talha had been extradited.
Mrs May also announced plans to introduce a “forum bar” which will give UK judges the power to decide whether an extradition suspect should be tried in a British court or abroad. The new rules will require separate legislation.
The decision comes more than a decade after McKinnon was arrested after conducting what the American’s described as “the biggest military hack of all time”. Using little more than a single computer and a dial-up modem, McKinnon was able to break into a string of Pentagon and Nasa computers from his north London bedsit, largely because employees had left default passwords on their accounts.
McKinnon, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, always insisted that his hacks were a harmless attempt to find evidence of extra-terrestrial life and highlight how ineffectual the American government’s cyber security was. He claims the Americans came after him because exposed embarrassing security loopholes.
The Americans saw things differently. The hacks, which occurred between March 2001 and February 2002, coincided with the heightened paranoia following the 11 September attacks. According to the indictment against him, McKinnon reportedly penetrated 81 military and 16 Nasa computers, stole documents and passwords, and even managed to shut down an entire Washington-based military network for 24 hours, causing $700,000 (£350,000) worth of damage. Under America’s strict anti-cyber hacking laws, he faced the possibility of up to 60 years in prison.
As his legal battles continued through the courts, McKinnon became one of the first extradition victims to receive widespread public and political support. Supporters of McKinnon argued that the potential prison sentence was disproportionate to the crime, that he should have been prosecuted in Britain for a crime committed on UK soil and that the state of his mental health would put him at an acute risk of suicide if he was sent to a foreign prison.
During campaigning for the last General Election both David Cameron and Nick Clegg said McKinnon should have been prosecuted in the UK and should not be sent to the United States. His imminent extradition was halted by Theresa May pending a detailed study of his medical condition.