Government defies business lobby over US extradition treaty

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The Government has rebuffed pleas from business leaders that businessmen should not fall prey to legislation drawn up to combat terrorism, as the former Morgan Crucible chief executive Ian Norris begins his High Court appeal against extradition to the United States today.

Sir Digby Jones, the director-general of the CBI, has protested against the way the US government is "abusing" an extradition treaty between the two countries. He has met the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, and the US ambassador to Britain, Robert Tuttle, to lodge his protest. Sir Digby is concerned that the Extradition Act 2003, which came into force on 1 January 2004 and was designed to fast-track terrorism cases, is being used to target alleged white-collar criminals.

The Home Office said yesterday that white-collar crime was like any other type of crime, rejecting pressure from business for different extradition procedures. It said it fully trusted the US legal system to deal with the cases before it.

Since 2004, Britain has received 45 extradition requests from the US, 23 of which were for financial offences (fraud, forgery, theft and robbery). That compares with nine requests from Britain to the US, three of which are financial cases. The legislation has speeded up proceedings considerably. Previously, the US had to wait 30 months on average for Britons to be extradited (it took Britain five months to get US citizens) - and that has now been cut to six months.

Under the new laws, US authorities are not required to present a prima facie case and so it takes very little for them to make an extradition request. UK citizens have been stripped of the protections that previously enabled them to fight such requests on UK soil.

Mr Norris's lawyer, Alistair Graham, a partner at the law firm White & Case, said: "The key difference between requests made by the US and the UK is that the US may weigh up or challenge the evidence put forward in requests, whereas UK citizens who are the subject of an extradition request have no such right to challenge the evidence."

The balance will remain tipped in favour of the US until it ratifies its side of the extradition treaty, which is a long way off.

If extradited, Mr Norris faces seven counts of fixing the price of industrial carbon products between 1989 and 1998 and two counts of attempting to pervert the course of justice. He denies the charges.

Today is the start of the four-day High Court hearing in which Mr Norris's lawyers will appeal against the decision of Bow Street Magistrates' Court in June to extradite him. They have applied for a judicial review of the imbalance in the UK-US extradition arrangements.

Sir Digby recently launched an impassioned plea on behalf of Mr Norris, who has prostate cancer, saying: "This is totally unacceptable. It might be acceptable for the bloke who wraps Semtex around his body but not for a 62-year-old executive with prostate cancer. The process of justice is being abused. America is being an ignorant bully."

He said he had come under pressure from CBI members for action. "Some of our members are asking why they should have anything to do with the US. They say, 'Why should I trade with America or invest in America if I might myself be banged up on remand with a bunch of rapists?'"

The legislation leaves UK executives vulnerable to a crackdown on white-collar crime in the US, after the collapse of Enron. Other cases concern Nigel Potter, the former chief executive of the gaming company Wembley, who went to the US voluntarily and was jailed for three years, but has lodged an appeal. Three former NatWest bankers are fighting extradition to the US over Enron-related fraud charges. The High Court may make a ruling tomorrow.

In a House of Lords debate last summer, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots said the imbalance in the US-UK treaty arrangements was "unprecedented." He said the Government had given assurances that Britons would not be liable for extradition to the US for financial crimes.