Janis Sharp: 'I wont rest. I don't want to lose my son'

As another legal door shuts in the face of computer hacker Gary McKinnon, his mother fears for his life if he is extradited to the US. Jonathan Owen met her
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The Independent Online

On an ordinary street in Hertfordshire, Janis Sharp is talking animatedly of an extraordinary fight: one which pitches her against the might of the greatest superpower on earth. In the background, two computer screens constantly flicker, bringing messages of support from around the world.

Her battle? A mother's fight for her son, Gary McKinnon, a 43-year-old computer hacker with Asperger's syndrome. He is facing extradition to the US under a draconian treaty designed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to deal with the most dedicated terror suspects.

And last week, Home Secretary Alan Johnson decided not to try to block the move – bringing Janis's son one step closer to being extradited. If convicted, he could face an astonishing 70 years in a US jail.

His crime? A plot on the American way of life? Hardly. What this alien-obsessed computer fanatic did, in 2001 and 2002, was to explore restricted and classified military sites at the Pentagon and Nasa. It appears to have been all too easy, with little in the way to stop him. No one denies his actions were stupid, least of all him, or his mother. And he compounded the insult by posting daunting messages to the US authorities. One said: "I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels."

Not, then, the sharpest tack in the box, but Solo, as he was known online, was no master hacker, let alone major criminal. He was caught in 2002. His biggest mistake may have been to admit his guilt freely, in the belief that he would escape with a six-month community sentence.

Instead he has been plunged into a drawn-out legal battle which has made him famous for all the wrong reasons. US authorities accuse him of having pulled off the biggest military hack of all time, and claim he caused hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of damage. Mr McKinnon has denied this, maintaining he was looking for proof that aliens exist. Supporters of the Free Gary campaign do not want him to escape justice; they simply want him to be tried and convicted in Britain and serve his time. To his mother, it is very simple. "If he's admitted it, why can't he be tried here?" said the 60-year-old, originally from Glasgow.

Her fight began more than seven years ago, when she was woken in the middle of the night by a phone call telling her her son had been arrested for computer hacking. When the US applied for extradition in 2005, under the terms of a new treaty with Britain, the family was faced with the real prospect that he could be sent abroad and sentenced up to 70 years in prison. The treaty, which doesn't require America to provide evidence of guilt, is "the biggest betrayal that any British government has done to its own people", said Janis.

Mr McKinnon is not able to give interviews because of his state of mind. His mother says medical experts have warned there is a 99 per cent chance he could commit suicide if he is extradited and imprisoned abroad. "It is unbelievable that Alan Johnson can claim extradition is not against Gary's human rights," she said. "To be in intense mental torture and fear for almost eight years is against anyone's human rights. We would not do this to an animal."

Janis's eyes glint with fury as she talks about the injustice of her son facing the prospect of a lifetime behind bars in a US jail for a crime that British police didn't bother to prosecute. She says she will do "whatever it takes" to prevent her son from being given what she says will be a death sentence. Her hopes were raised when Mr Johnson agreed to delay proceedings last month to look at medical evidence of her son's state of mind. Earlier this month, the Commons' Home Affairs Committee backed calls for the extradition to be halted because of his "precarious state of mental health".

But her heart sank when the Home Secretary emailed his decision to her last Thursday. "This was just another blow, an additional pain, an additional sadness." She was scared to tell her son, because of his mental fragility. "He was very quiet. He understands, but Gary's in an extremely dark place."

The stress is starting to tell on his mother. She started having nightmares about Gary for the first time. She said: "I won't tell you because it's too horrible. Basically it was one of Gary's main fears: Gary's terrified of male rape." Describing how he is "wrecked mentally" she said: "He feels like there's a veil between him and the world. He feels as though he's walking through a world that's ready to end."

This week Mr McKinnon's lawyers will apply for a judicial review but the reality is that they are almost out of options. And the anger is building inside his mother. "Gary is in great danger of taking his own life. Everything I've described is hard for me to say but it's very bleak. He's a good person and what they've done to him makes me angry. I won't rest. I'll keep fighting because I don't want to lose him."

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