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New legal blow for hacker fighting extradition to US

Gary McKinnon's mother appeals to President Barack Obama to intervene

The British UFO enthusiast and computer hacker Gary McKinnon lost his latest legal battle yesterday to avoid being extradited to the United States, where he faces up to six decades in a maximum security jail.

American prosecutors accuse Mr McKinnon of perpetrating the "biggest military hack of all time" and have vowed to imprison him for breaking into 97 government computers shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks.

His supporters say he never meant to cause any damage and was simply looking for evidence of extraterrestrial life, a hobby which had turned into an obsession because he suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. They believe he will be a suicide risk if sent to an American prison.

The 43-year-old self-confessed hacker from Wood Green, north London, had gone to the High Court to challenge the decision by successive Home Secretaries, which permitted his extradition to go ahead, and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for refusing to try him in Britain instead of the US.

But yesterday Lord Justice Stanley Burnton and Mr Justice Wilkie dismissed those claims and said his extradition across the Atlantic would be "a lawful and proportionate response". The High Court also backed Keir Starmer QC, the DPP, who has refused to try Mr McKinnon in Britain – an act that would save him from extradition.

Outside the High Court yesterday, Mr McKinnon's mother, Janis, said the decision was "heartbreaking" and called on the US President Barack Obama to intervene in her son's case. Directly addressing Mr Obama, she said: "Stand by us and make this world a better place, a more compassionate place.

"Obama wouldn't have wanted this. He doesn't want the first person extradited for computer misuse to be a guy with Asperger's, a UFO guy. I'm just praying, please hear us, Obama, because I know you would do the right thing."

Speaking after the judgment, the Home Secretary Alan Johnson made it clear that, like his predecessors, he had no plans to stop Mr McKinnon's extradition. "Mr McKinnon is accused of serious crimes and the US has a lawful right to seek his extradition, as we do when we wish to prosecute people who break our laws," he said.

The Home Secretary's words were in direct contrast to those of the Conservative Party leader David Cameron, who has come out in support of Mr McKinnon and called on the extradition treaty between the US and Britain to be reviewed. "Gary McKinnon is a vulnerable young man and I see no compassion in sending him thousands of miles away from his home and loved ones to face trial," he said. "If he has questions to answer, there is a clear argument to be made that he should answer to them in a British court."

Mr McKinnon will not, however, be handed over to US officials just yet. Yesterday his solicitor Karen Todner confirmed she would be appealing to the newly created Supreme Court and was willing to take her client's fight as far as the European Court of Human Rights.

She also accused the Government of doing little to ensure that Mr McKinnon would be given bail while awaiting trial, something the Government fought for during the extradition of the so-called NatWest Three – a trio of British businessmen who were indicted for wire fraud during the Enron scandal. As their extradition loomed, the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair said he would try to persuade the Americans to grant them bail until the trial. "In the NatWest Three case the Attorney General flew to America to obtain assurances of bail for them," said Miss Todner. "No such actions have taken place for Gary, nor has he been promised repatriation immediately upon sentence."

If Mr McKinnon is sent to the US, prosecutors have indicated he is likely to be held in a "Supermax" prison, usually used for high-risk and violent inmates, because he is considered a flight risk.