Women to be extradited to US for trial: Clarke attacked for agreeing that two former Bhagwan followers should face charges in America. Heather Mills reports

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The Independent Online
TWO British women are to be sent to the United States to face trial in what was described yesterday as a 'threadbare' and 'squalid case of political expediency'.

Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, ordered the extradition of Susan Hagan and Sally Croft yesterday to face charges of conspiracy to murder - despite warnings from Lord Scarman, the former Law Lord, and lawyers that there was a serious risk of a miscarriage of justice.

Mr Clarke's decision means that the women should be extradited before Monday, but Andrew McCooey, their solicitor, said yesterday that he would be applying immediately for judicial review - which could delay the procedure - and would, if necessary, take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The charges of plotting to kill Charles Turner, a US federal attorney, arise from events eight years ago when the two women were followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Suggestions of a plot arose after the Bhagwan commune in the wilderness near Antelope, Oregon, collapsed amid infighting and bitter confrontation with the US authorities.

But no attempt was ever made on Mr Turner's life. In fact, the only evidence against the two women is the uncorroborated testimony of other former cult members, who in plea bargains won lenient sentences for providing statements against others.

Appeals to Mr Clarke to intervene were prompted by the lack of corroboration; delays in bringing the case - the US Justice Department did not seek the extradition for nearly five years; fear that the women could not get a fair trial in Oregon where local resentment against the Bhagwan's followers remains fierce; and failure to disclose the evidence to the women. The Home Secretary has the power to refuse extradition if he considers it would be 'unjust or oppressive'.

But no Home Secretary has ever refused an extradition request from the US and Mr Clarke made it clear he was not prepared to set a precedent. He said: 'I am satisfied a clear prima facie case has been found against both women. The strength of the evidence and the guilt or innocence of the accused should be determined by a court of law and not by me.'

Nick Raynsford, Ms Croft's MP, said: 'This is a squalid case of political expediency overriding justice. The case is threadbare. It is based on unsubstantiated allegations made as part of a plea bargain by discredited individuals. No case would be entertained in the British courts on such a flimsy basis, which Mr Clarke, as a QC, must know only too well.'

Now in their mid-40s, Ms Croft, a senior accountant, and Ms Hagan, an aromatherapist and mother of two, face up to 20 years in jail if convicted.

Ms Hagan said: 'I'm stunned, I can't believe the Home Secretary has found there is a prime facie case. And how can he be convinced there will be no prejudice against cults, especially in the light of recent events at Waco.'