Clarke urged to intervene on 'murder plot' Britons: Scarman warns that extradition to US would put former Bhagwan followers at risk of a serious miscarriage of justice

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The Independent Online
LORD SCARMAN has intervened in the case of two British women facing allegations that they were part of a cult plot to murder a federal attorney in the United States.

The veteran justice campaigner and former Law Lord has warned the Home Secretary that he would be putting both women at risk of a serious miscarriage of justice, if he agrees to their extradition to face trial.

His 11th-hour appeal, coming on top of concerns about the case being voiced by MPs and lawyers, has brought a glimmer of hope to Sally Croft, an accountant with a City firm, and Susan Hagan, an aromatherapist and mother of two, who are facing a possible 20 years in a US jail.

Now approaching middle age, the women never contemplated that their past would catch up with them in such a bizarre and potentially destructive fashion. A youthful desire in the 1970s for an alternative lifestyle led them to the guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his 'spiritually mind-broadening' community in the wilderness near Antelope, Oregon.

Now seven and a half years after they cast off their orange clothes and left the Bhagwan, who died in 1990 - disillusioned when his desire for a fleet of 91 Rolls-Royces surpassed care of his community - they feel he has come back to haunt them. They are accused of plotting in 1985 with other Bhagwan followers to kill Charles Turner, the US attorney whose investigations into the 66,000-acre ranch commune was leading to its disintegration.

But no attempt was made on Mr Turner's life; suggestions of a murder plot originated from the Bhagwan himself; the US Justice Department does not seem to have pursued the matter until 1990 - serving warrants on the two women only days before the time limit for bringing prosecutions expired; and the evidence against them consists only of the uncorroborated testimony of other former Rajneeshee cult members.

In plea bargains, cult members won lenient sentences for providing statements against others. Those statements have not been provided to the two women or their lawyers, but are said to suggest that Ms Croft, as financial adviser to the cult, made funds available to buy a gun and Ms Hagan was in a room when a plot was hatched. Colin Nicholls, a leading QC, has concluded it is 'inconceivable that the Director of Public Prosecutions in England would commence proceedings on evidence of the nature and quality which allegedly supports this extradition'.

The women have exhausted all avenues through the British courts to avoid extradition to the US. Their final hope now lies with Kenneth Clarke, who has the power to refuse extradition if he considers it would be 'unjust or oppressive' to do so. But the Home Secretary has not refused an extradition with the US and he will be reluctant to set a precedent.

Ms Croft, 42, said: 'This is Kafkaesque. It would be a joke if at the end of the day we were not heading towards disaster. Even now I can't really believe that no one is stopping this nonsense.'

Ms Hagan, 45, fearful of what will happen to her 16-year-old daughter, said: 'Nobody has been to trial on this charge in the States. There have always been deals. The allegations have never actually been publicly tested. If we do face trial maybe we can blow the whole thing out of the water. But that needs strength and I am not sure I have that much left.'

The women further fear that because of the acrimony and hostility that grew between the commune and the people of Oregon they will not get a fair trial.

They have submitted to Mr Clarke the testimony of an Oregon lawyer, who in the early 1980s arbitrated in disputes between the followers of Bhagwan and the people of Antelope. Frank Jesselson concludes on behalf of Ms Croft that if extradited, she would be 'unfairly and unjustly convicted of a crime she did not commit'.

The women now have transcripts of a tape of a conversation between Mr Turner and a journalist, made after the Bhagwan was deported from the US, in which Mr Turner says the US authorities were employing the criminal process against those in the commune 'to solve what was really a political problem'.

In his seven-page letter to the Home Secretary, Lord Scarman says Mr Clarke can take into account factors that the courts could not - 'the social and political factors in Oregon, in particular the prejudice against the cult'. After studying the case, he believes the delay in seeking the women's extradition is 'intolerable, and oppressive' and enhanced doubts over the credibility of the evidence and the refusal of the American authorities to allow the defence to examine the witness statements was 'an oppressive restriction upon the rights of the defence'.

He concludes that the women would be put to 'an unacceptable risk of injustice' if the Home Secretary were to allow their extradition, adding: 'It is not safe to take the risk'.

Andrew McCooey, the women's solicitor, also urged Mr Clarke 'not to sacrifice two innocent British women's lives for the sake of not offending the US government'.

(Photographs omitted)