NatWest 3 flown to uncertain fate in Texas

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The Independent Online

It was the fate the "NatWest Three" spent nearly three years trying to avoid. Shortly after dawn yesterday they arrived at a police station, emptied their pockets and surrendered to the US Department of Justice.

The British former bankers, accused of making £1.4m each from a fraud involving the collapsed American energy giant Enron, will appear in a Houston courtroom today after a 10-hour flight across the Atlantic and a night in the cells.

They will learn this afternoon whether an American judge will grant them bail, the conditions of which, their lawyers said, werelikely to require them to remain in the US for up to two years while their case goes to trial.

The hearing at the Houston Federal District Court will be the culmination of a tumultuous 36 hours for David Bermingham, 43, and Giles Darby and Gary Mulgrew, both 44. Yesterday, in front of the massed media, the men travelled to a police station in Croydon, south London, from their large rural homes after bidding farewell to the 10 young children they have between them.

Mr Darby and Mr Mulgrew avoided the cameras by using a rear entrance shortly after 6am. But Mr Bermingham, a former Army officer who arrived with his wife, Emma, 39, pulled up at the front entrance to once more criticise the Government for the fast-track extradition procedure. He said: "It's a very sad day because most of you are British and you got let down today by your own Government."

Once inside the station the men were searched, made to empty their pockets, and had their possessions logged. They were then handed over to US federal marshals and driven in a van to Gatwickto board Continental Airlines flight CO35 to George Bush International Airport in Houston. Their lawyer, Mark Spragg, said: "They were resigned to their fate. They think it's terribly unfair. They are preparing for a very difficult road."

The three men were first on and first off the flight, but gone were the business class seats they would have occupied on their way to Houston in 2000 to allegedly negotiate the deal with senior Enron executives which netted the three Britons $7.3m. They were seated in the central bank of seats, one behind the other, taking up the back three rows of the aeroplane. They sat boxed in by officers from the US Marshal Service. Giles Darby and Gary Mulgrew were flanked by male officers. David Birmingham, who has been the most vocal, was flanked by two female officers. The marshals dressed casually and one played computer games. But the NatWest three sat grimfaced. None of the were handcuffed at any point during the flight, which touched down at 1.40pm local time. The three, carrying small rucksacks, were met by law enforcement officers. "They looked terrible," said one passenger. "They made no eye contact."

The trio were then taken into downtown Houston to the Federal Detention Centre, where they stayed ahead of their hearing today. A sign in the reception warned of a terrorist threat in the US. It said: "National threat level yellow [elevated]. Have a great day." Their bail hearing is scheduled for 2pm local time (8pm BST). Mr Bermingham said yesterday he was "very optimistic" that he and his two former colleagues at Greenwich NatWest would be granted conditional bail. Tony Blair said yesterday that he had received assurances that American prosecutors would not oppose them.

Representatives of the men said they had been told by American lawyers that it would be very unlikely they would be allowed to return to Britain on bail. Their lawyer said the conditions likely to be imposed, including a $1m (£540,000) bail bond and the deeds of their homes as security, would be financially ruinous and make it difficult for them to receive a fair trial. They would be unable to work in America to while they incur additional legal bills of $2m (£1.1m) including air fares to bring defence witnesses from Britain. It is understood one witnesses would have been Neil Coulbeck, 53, the former NatWest colleague found on Tuesday after he apparently took his life in a London park.

The trio are accused of conspiring with Enron executives, including the head of finance, Andrew Fastow, currently serving a 10-year jail term, to complete a $20m (£11m) fraud by selling NatWest's stake in a debt vehicle for $1m (£540,000). Prosecutors say this was far less than its worth and the fraud was completed when the three men bought it back at a profit of $7.3m (£3.95m). The Britons all deny any wrongdoing.

The extradition last night brought disquiet from British business. The CBI warned that the 2003 Extradition Act was putting at risk Britain's position as a leading business centre.

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