Government accused of running smear campaign against bankers

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Indy Politics

Ministers have been accused of smearing the three former Nat West executives facing extradition to the US, in a political row that had parallels with the case of David Kelly, who killed himself almost three years ago to the day.

Yesterday's emergency House of Commons debate on extradition law threatened to descend into chaos when the Solicitor General, Mike O'Brien, described the trio repeatedly as the "Enron Three".

The former home secretary, Michael Howard, complained that the word "Enron" - with its connotations of wide-scale fraud - was "highly prejudicial".

He was backed up by another former Tory home secretary, Kenneth Clarke, who warned Mr O'Brien that he was coming "very dangerously near" to making it sound as if the Government thinks that the three men are guilty.

The Respect MP George Galloway said the description "could only have been an attempt to describe them pejoratively and which must be prejudicial and must be unprecedented for a law officer of the Crown in a matter like this".

Other Tory MPs pleaded with the Deputy Speaker, Alan Haselhurst, to order Mr O'Brien to stop using the expression, but Mr Haselhurst said he could not because the men are not facing trial in the UK.

An unrepentant Mr O'Brien finally agreed to drop the expression and stressed that the men were innocent until proved guilty.

The shadow Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, later produced documentary evidence of an organised Labour spin campaign that included using the label "Enron Three". He read from a leaked e-mail written by Steve Bates, political adviser to the Home Secretary, John Reid, suggesting arguments that could be used to support the Government's case.

It was headed: "Not allowing crime to escape over borders versus supporting the PR campaign of multi-millionaires charged in relation to the biggest fraud in US corporate history." One of the points made was "Enron 3 lost court case".

The government scientist David Kelly committed suicide in July 2003, amid a row over whether the Government exaggerated the case for the Iraq war, and was described by a Downing Street press officer as a "Walter Mitty" character.

Tony Blair is under growing pressure to tear up the extradition treaty he reached with the US three years ago, amid accusations that he gave the US exactly what it wanted without getting anything in return.

MPs voted to adjourn the House of Commons early yesterday in opposition to the treaty. Only four loyal Labour MPs opposed the motion. 246 MPsvoted against the Government.

From a police station in Croydon to a Texas prison

At 9.30am today, the three former bankers will be on a plane to Houston, Texas, after resisting their extradition for more than two years.

They face charges relating to an £11m fraud involving the collapsed US energy giant Enron.

A few hours earlier, at 6am, the men, aged in their early 40s, were due to report to police in Croydon - returning on court bail after their first court appearance before Bow Street magistrates' court on 23 April 2004. They were then due to be handed over to US marshals at Gatwick airport, where they were to be put on a 10-hour flight to Houston.

They will touch down at 1.40pm local time. Upon arrival they may be hand-cuffed and manacled and driven straight to the Houston Federal Detention Centre.

Their lawyers have been trying to secure bail so they can await trial in Britain. Otherwise they face being incarcerated in Houston for up to two years. A bail hearing is scheduled for 11am tomorrow morning.

Tony Blair, who has refused to block the extraditions, said yesterday that he had been informed that US prosecutors would not oppose conditional bail.

Julia Kollewe

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