Maze escaper becomes 'a cause celebre': Phil Reeves meets a former Sinn Fein man who is fighting extradition from the US

AS THE MAZE escaper Jimmy Smyth sat having tea and biscuits in his comfortable flat in San Francisco, an Irish friend burst in waving a cartoon, hot from the drawing board.

It was a picture of John Chilcot, Permanent Under-Secretary of State to the Northern Ireland Office, sitting in the witness box in an American court. Across the page, written dozens of times, were the words: 'I am not authorised to respond . . .'

While he scanned the drawing, destined for publication in an Irish nationalist newspaper, the usually gaunt and solemn-faced Smyth allowed himself a snort of pleasure. The civil servant was the first witness fielded by the Government in its attempt to extradite him to Northern Ireland to serve the remainder of a 20-year sentence, imposed in 1978 when he was convicted of attempting to murder an off-duty prison officer.

Sixteen times, Mr Chilcot had refused to answer questions from Karen Snell, Smyth's lawyer, about the unpublished Stalker-Sampson report into whether the security forces were guilty of shooting-to-kill suspects.

His stonewalling was exactly what the Irishman had been hoping for. 'Why are the Government not defending themselves, through the people they've sent over here?' he asked between sips of tea. 'They ought to fight for what they believe in. If they believe the British are right in being in the north of Ireland, they should stick up for that . . . I think they're cowardly. They could put up a better fight than that.'

On Tuesday, Smyth, 39, enjoyed a quiet evening at home after being let out of jail for a trip to the doctor for treatment for a kidney problem before preparing to set off - for the seventh time - to drive back to the Pleasanton federal prison, 30 miles away. 'I think we're doing great,' he said. 'I have said from day one, I want my day in court. It looks like I have convinced the judge. She's prepared to give me it.'

At earlier hearings, the US district judge Barbara Caulfield had asked to read the Stalker-Sampson report, along with other classified British documents, but the Government refused to hand them over.

In June, she responded by ruling that the burden of proof now lies with the British to show that Irish nationalists accused, or found guilty, of offences against security forces or prison officials are not subjected to systematic and retaliatory harm, or even murder. If they fail, Smyth could avoid extradition under a clause in the US-UK treaty which exempts people at risk of persecution on their return.

The Government has not got off to a good start. The spectacle of its officials concealing matters of apparent public interest only deepens existing American views about British secrecy. Mr Chilcot found himself under attack when he admitted not reading a recent US report about his patch.

'You are responsible for policy, and you are sitting here in a US court, and you say you didn't read the US State Department's 1992 human rights report on Northern Ireland?' Ms Snell asked.

Perhaps crucially, he also conceded that the authorities could not give a total guarantee that Smyth would not be at risk on his return. Nor is the Government's position aided by the one-sided publicity in the case. Ms Snell has made clear that her intention is to expose Britain to a highly publicised and - she hopes - embarrassing trial over its record in Northern Ireland. 'We want the American people to see what the people of Ireland have been going through, from a personal perspective,' she declared this week.

While Smyth and Ms Snell have given dozens of media interviews, the British authorities have presented a wall of silence. Mark Zanides, the assistant US Attorney presenting Britain's case, says little publicly about the hearing. Three dark-suited British officials have been watching proceedings, but will only admit to being 'government observers'. In a nation where the Secret Service hands out visiting cards, such tactics do not win many admirers.

Smyth is not alone in the view that he may win. The early stages of the trial have prompted speculation that the Government may be resigned to losing before Judge Caulfield, who does not appear sympathetic to their case, but expects to win on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

But Smyth, a former Sinn Fein member who denies being in the IRA or being guilty of attempted murder, does expect to be sent back eventually. It is now 10 years since he escaped from the Maze prison in Belfast in the biggest mass Republican break-out in history. 'At the end of the road, I expect the Government to intervene,' he said, remembering the case of the IRA man Joe Doherty, who won his extradition case only to be deported.

In the meantime, he intends to make his case in a cause celebre. 'Even if I lose, I will have been victorious,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)