Former cult members lose extradition plea: House of Lords to decide if women must face murder plot charges in US

THE HOUSE of Lords is to decide whether the Home Secretary acted wrongly in approving the extradition to the United States of two former members of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh cult on charges of conspiracy to murder.

Yesterday, despite arguments from lawyers for Sally Croft and Susan Hagan that the decision was flawed because of the unreliability of the evidence, their application for judicial review of the Home Secretary's action was rejected by the High Court.

Lord Justice Russell, sitting with Mr Justice Blofeld, said the Home Secretary, then Kenneth Clarke, had acted lawfully and the decision to extradite them should stand. 'There is no evidence to indicate he exercised his discretion unreasonably.' He had been fully entitled to decide there was 'a clear prima facie' case against the women and the reliability of the evidence should be left to the trial jury.

Later, the court refused an application for an appeal to the House of Lords, which means that lawyers for the two women will now apply directly to the law lords for a hearing. The Home Office made it clear that their extradition warrants, signed by the Home Secretary in April, will not be enforced until the law lords have decided the issue, which could take many months.

Ms Croft, 44, a chartered accountant, who lives in central London, and Mrs Hagan, 46, an aromatherapist, of Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire, deny the allegations that while they were members of Bhagwan cult community in Oregon more than eight years ago they were involved in a conspiracy to murder Charles Turner, an attorney who was investigating the cult. He was never harmed.

After the hearing, both women said they continue their fight. Ms Croft said: 'I am never going to have a chance to have a fair trial and prove my innocence because of the scandalous prejudice against the Rajneesh community in Oregon. That is why we are so terrified by the process we are in.'

She said many of the details about the case supplied by the US authorities were factually inaccurate. Lord Longford, one of several eminent opponents to their extradition, was in court. He described the decision as 'a disgraceful miscarriage of justice'.

During the hearing last week, lawyers for the two women argued that the FBI evidence was tainted because of plea-bargaining and immunity-from-prosecution deals with four other former cult members who had agreed to give evidence against the women. They also protested at the 'long and oppressive' delay in bringing the case and argued that local prejudice against the cult would prevent a fair trial.

(Photograph omitted)