Britain moves to ease extradition in the EC

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PLANS to speed up extradition arrangements within Europe, and end wrangles that have dogged the Government's attempts to bring IRA suspects to Britain, are being studied by EC justice ministers.

Britain and Spain have tabled plans to reform extradition procedures after widespread criticism of the European convention on the suppression of terrorism.

The British plans - 'seeking to remove legal impediments to extradition' - were tabled at a recent meeting of an inter-governmental working party. The Government has suggested the abolition of the right to refuse extradition where a 'political' crime has been committed. That was a defence mounted by a number of IRA suspects in the 1970s, although it has since been limited by Irish courts.

British ministers also want the power to add new criminal charges after a suspect has been extradited - something now banned and which has thwarted attempts to prosecute some alleged IRA terrorists.

Under more dramatic changes proposed by Spain at an EC justice ministers' meeting in London last week, requests for extradition would be granted automatically in the EC, with most applications handled by civil servants rather than judges. Some observers say the ideas, welcomed at the meeting by other ministers, are the logical conclusion to policies aimed at opening borders and improving judicial co-operation. Under the draft treaty submitted by the Spanish justice minister, Tomas Quadra-Salcedo, EC extraditions would become a largely administrative issue. Most requests would be handled by civil authorities, increasing the speed and efficiency of the system, according to Spain.

John Taylor, parliamentary secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Department, which hosted the meeting, welcomed the Spanish plans, telling his counterparts that Britain shared Madrid's desire to improve extradition procedures.

However, both the Spanish and British proposals are certain to a provoke a furore among lawyers and civil liberties groups.

John Wadham, legal officer for Liberty, formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties, said extradition was a 'punishment in itself', adding suspects needed more, not less, protection against it.

Legal sources point to Britain's difficulties in extraditing suspects from Dublin and Spain's in trying to extradite alleged Basque terrorists from France.