Plea to stop Bhagwan extradition

TONY BLAIR, Labour's Home Affairs spokesman, is to meet American Embassy officials amid mounting concern about the threatened deportation to the United States of two British women who were members of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh cult.

This week Sally-Anne Croft, 42, now a City senior accountant, and Susan Hagan, 45, an aromatherapist, will make a last-minute attempt to save themselves from possible 25-year jail sentences. They will ask the High Court on Wednesday for leave to challenge the decision of Kenneth Clarke to allow their extradition.

Their case will be that Mr Clarke did not look at the evidence pointing to their innocence. They want the courts to tell Michael Howard, Mr Clarke's successor as Home Secretary, to review the case.

Ms Hagan and Ms Croft were followers of the Indian guru in 1985 when his commune in Oregon collapsed amid bitter internal strife and allegations that disciples had tried to poison local people.

They are accused of conspiring to murder Charles Turner, a US attorney investigating the Bhagwan. But, as the Independent on Sunday has shown, no attempt was made on Mr Turner's life and the US authorities did not raise any allegation against the two women for five years. The evidence against them comes entirely from witnesses who have struck plea bargains and who will face huge increases in their sentences if they change their stories.

The trial is due to be held in Oregon where local anger against the Rajneeshis remains great.

Requests to move proceedings to an impartial state have been rejected.

Mr Blair, along with Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown and many other MPs, is known to be concerned about the long delay in bringing the case to court and the tainted evidence. He has asked for an explanation from the US Government and is expecting to see Embassy officials soon.

Ms Hagan and Ms Croft's lawyers last week received reports that the real reason for the relentless pursuit of the two women was that the Americans wanted them to give evidence against the Bhagwan's secretary 'Sheela' - who was the public face of the Oregon commune and is still widely hated in the state - in return for a cut in their sentences.

The lawyers allege that the British Government is not acting in the women's interest because it is frightened that the US will respond by refusing to extradite IRA suspects.

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