NatWest Three face extradition to US after losing final appeal

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The Independent Online

Three former NatWest bankers embroiled in the Enron scandal are to be arrested and flown to the USwhere they face up to 23 years in prison after losing their final appeal against their extradition yesterday.

The European Court of Human Rights rejected the trio's request to delay their extradition to face trial in Houston, Texas, the home of the collapsed energy trader Enron. A week ago, the House of Lords threw out the bankers' appeal to challenge earlier court rulings allowing them to be extradited. The three - David Bermingham, Gary Mulgrew and Giles Darby - will be flown to the US manacled within 28 days of the House of Lords decision. They maintain they are innocent and should be tried in Britain where the majority of the alleged crime happened.

Their lawyer, Mark Spragg, said yesterday: "We have now done everything possible to establish the rights of three UK citizens to be investigated and [if appropriate] prosecuted in the UK but all we have established is that UK citizens have no such rights against an extradition request made by the US."

It will cost the trio $1.5m (£820,000) each to fight the case in the US as they will have to represent themselves separately and fly over 32 witnesses, as well as documents, from the UK and put them up in the US for the trial.

The NatWest Three outcome does not bode well for other UK executives fighting extradition such as Ian Norris, the former Morgan Crucible boss who is wanted in the US on price-fixing charges. The cases fall under new extradition laws which were rushed through after the 11 September terror attacks and were designed to fast-track terrorism cases. The human rights group Liberty has joined forces with business lobby groups and the Tories to attack the "unfair" extradition regime which they say is being used to target UK businessmen. There is a march for business people tomorrow at 5pm from the Institute of Directors to the Home Office to protest against the extradition regime.

Under the new extradition laws, the US is no longer required to provide "prima facie" or solid evidence of wrongdoing, and US extradition requests are now assessed on the lower standard of "information". The UK and other countries, however, must still provide the US with evidence of "probable cause" if they wish to extradite a US citizen. Lawyers say another key difference is the US may weigh up or challenge the evidence put forward in requests whereas UK citizens whose extradition is being sought have no such right. The Home Office has s strongly denied there is an imbalance in the extradition arrangements.

The UK bankersface seven counts of wire fraud in the US, connected to allegations that they devised a scheme with former Enron executives to defraud the energy giant of $20m, pocketing $7.3m themselves. The US indictment claims the bankers advised NatWest to sell its interest in an Enron business "Swap Sub" for $1m, much less than it was worth, to a vehicle controlled by the executives. It alleges Enron then paid Swap Sub $30m, believing NatWest would receive $20m.

Each count of wire fraud carries a maximum term of five years. Douglas McNabb, a US extradition expert who has testified on behalf of the men, said they would probably get 23 years in prison if they were found guilty.

They are unlikely to get bail and face one to two years in a high-security jail while awaiting trial.

Mr Spragg said the case started when the trio went voluntarily to the Financial Services Authority, in 2001, but the regulator decided not to investigate them. The Serious Fraud Office then also refused to investigate them.