Surreal last journey to the final reckoning: Four-year battle ends in tears and impromptu domestic arrangements

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The Independent Online
SUSAN HAGAN likened it to a scene from Alice in Wonderland. Lord Longford's imagery was much starker: 'It reminds me of the Crucifixion. The victims are in the centre and a few women are weeping around them.'

Perhaps Alice in Wonderland was more appropriate. Four hours earlier, Ms Hagan and Sally Croft had failed in their last attempt to avoid extradition to the US. Now, shortly before 4pm, surrounded by camera crews, reporters and supporters including Lord Longford, they were trembling on the steps of Heathrow police station.

'The whole thing is surreal,' Ms Croft said. 'We don't know what to expect, but now we have to go, there's not much we can do about it.'

It was indeed surreal. Once their legal applications had been thrown out, the women made their way by Tube to Heathrow airport. Sandwiched by cameras, lights and journalists, they trundled along the Piccadilly line for an hour, hugging their loved ones, occasionally crying and making last-minute, strangely inappropriate domestic arrangements.

Susan Hagan told her son Nicholas, 23, not to forget to insure the car and to help his sister, Katharine, 18, finish her education. Sally Croft gave instructions to Malcolm Parlett for the storage of her property.

It could be 20 years before either of the women sets foot on British soil again.

Their big mistake in the eyes of the American public was to belong to the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh sect in Antelope, Oregon. During the early 1980s, the Bhagwan's followers had spread out from Poona, inland from Bombay, and had built their own, despised community in the north-western state.

The Rajneeshees and the local population were constantly in dispute, at first over land and building permits, and later over allegations of illegal immigration, the poisoning of a restaurant, telephone tapping and a plot to murder Charles Turner, the US attorney investigating the sect.

'The main tenets of the religion were 'Love, Life and Laughter',' Ms Croft, 44, an accountant, said. 'We achieved that in India - I first went there in 1976 - but we were never accepted in America. Finally the external pressures were so great that the community collapsed.'

Ms Croft, the community's accountant, and Ms Hagan, 47, in charge of roads and building works, left in 1985 when the Antelope site began to fragment. They thought they had left the community behind but, in 1990, it came back to haunt them.

Four of the sect's members who had been arrested implicated the women in the alleged conspiracy plot in return for plea bargains over less serious offences. For four years the women have repeatedly resisted extradition. Yesterday, after losing their latest applications, they decided enough was enough.

'We have never been afraid to be tried if we can have a fair trial,' said Ms Hagan. 'We are innocent. We were never involved in any conspiracy and no one was ever hurt. So why are we being sent back now?'

During their legal campaign, Lords Scarman, Morris, Longford and a host of other peers supported their cause and asked for a debate on the case. More than 80 MPs signed an early-day motion, also calling for a debate. But Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, would not be moved.

In 124 years, no Home Secretary has turned down an American request for extradition, despite continuing difficulties in extraditing terrorist suspects to Britain from the US.

The women's arrival in Portland, Oregon, later today promises to be hostile. Rajneeshees are still hated there, and television stations are already showing emotive and prejudicial programmes about the sect in anticipation of their return.

In one of them, broadcast in April, Mr Turner said he was so terrified of the Rajneeshees that he slept with a gun under his bed.

US prosecutors have said the women are unlikely to win bail. Their legal aid bill in Britain has already topped pounds 100,000 and they have no funds to select defence lawyers in Oregon. A public defender will represent them.

Yesterday, after their Tube journey, the women submitted themselves to the Metropolitan Extradition Squad at 3.50pm. At 4.10pm the squad took them into custody. Neither Ms Hagan's children nor Mr Parlett were allowed to go with the women. Within 15 minutes they were taken away in a police minibus to be put on a 4.50pm flight to New York. They were accompanied by two policewomen but spared the indignity of wearing handcuffs. It is likely to be a different story when they land in Portland today.

(Photograph omitted)