Pregnant drug mule wins legal fight


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The Independent Online

A woman drugs mule who is pregnant has won her High Court battle against extradition to Argentina on the grounds that her removal would violate her human rights.

Lucy Wright, in her late 20s, from Bolton, Lancashire, had made a pledge to plead guilty to cocaine smuggling charges if her extradition to South America was halted and she was tried in the UK.

Today two judges in London allowed her appeal against extradition on the basis that it would infringe her right not to be subjected to "inhuman and degrading treatment" under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

If extradited, she could have expected to receive a sentence in Argentina of up to 16 years, the High Court heard.

Lord Justice Thomas, sitting with Mr Justice Silber, stressed they had decided the case on its specific facts, including a lack of undertakings from Argentina relating to the prison conditions she could expect to face.

They stressed there was "no basis whatsoever for assuming or believing" that future attempts by the government of Argentina to obtain extradition orders would fail.

Mr Justice Silber said: "Our decision may well have been different if the government of Argentina had adduced proper evidence or given undertakings."

Today's case is extraordinary because it is one of the very rare occasions on which English judges have in recent years blocked extradition requests - a process that has given rise to nationwide controversy.

Sir John Thomas, formerly Lord Justice Thomas, now President of the Queen's Bench Division, emphasised with Mr Justice Silber that today's challenge could not have succeeded in relation to countries which are a party to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Lawyers for Wright had argued there was a real risk that her human rights would be violated if she was sent back to Argentina, where prison conditions were "inhuman and degrading".

Wright, who is now heavily pregnant, was arrested at Buenos Aires airport allegedly in the act of smuggling nearly 14lb (6.32kg) of cocaine on March 14 2007. She fled home after she was allowed bail.

If she had lost her battle against extradition, her removal would not have taken place until after the birth of her child, who would have then been looked after by a sister.

Her lawyers argued there was UN evidence of "systemic human rights violations" in Argentinian women's penal institutions.

Alun Jones QC, appearing for Wright, said she could expect to be held in custody for over two years awaiting trial, even if she pleaded guilty.

She could then expect to serve any subsequent sentence in inhuman and degrading conditions violating Article 3.

In newspaper interviews, Wright has described herself as a nursing student from Bolton, Lancashire, who came to London with her boyfriend to start a nursing degree.

When the relationship ended she became very depressed and tried to kill herself, and then a drug dealer got her addicted to crack cocaine.

After running up massive debts, the dealer offered her £10,000 to smuggle cocaine.

At Buenos Aires airport, she was stopped with a suitcase containing the cocaine.

She was bailed the following day and fled to the UK via Brazil where she reported her passport lost and got a replacement from the British consulate in Sao Paulo. Her family wired her money for a ticket home.

But when she went to the police they declined to investigate the case.

Later she moved into her own flat, got a car, found work as a care assistant and embarked on a university course to become a nurse.

But she was arrested in April 2009 after the Argentinian government began moves to extradite her, and chief magistrate Judge Howard Riddle ruled at Westminster Magistrates' Court that extradition could go ahead.

The Home Secretary formerly ordered her extradition in July 2010 under the 2003 Extradition Act. It was the magistrate's decision that was overturned today.

The High Court was told that Wright had "turned her life around" and the right course was for her to be tried in the UK.

Mr Jones said a report from "civil society organisations" in Argentina to the UN committee for the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women concluded there were systemic human rights violations in women's prisons.

Dr Maria Verdu, an Argentinian lawyer instructed on behalf of Wright, had reported that violations to basic rights were "the rule".

They included food shortages, lack of sanitary facilities, and frequent intimate searches in the presence of male staff.

Dr Verdu stated that, as a foreign national prisoner, Wright would suffer greatly due to food, clothing and shortages of personal items.

She would stand a chance of surviving only if she acted as a "slave" to other, wealthier prisoners in return for commodities.

A major factor in Wright winning her appeal was Dr Verdu's evidence.

Today the High Court judges said that, in addition to the Argentinian failure to give undertakings, "there was no attempt to cross-examine Dr Verdu on her evidence or otherwise to contradict her powerful evidence".