EU agrees to talks with US over terror extradition

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The Independent Online

The European Union agreed to hold talks with America yesterday over the extradition of terrorist suspects, despite sharp differences over the use of the death penalty.

EU justice and interior ministers in Luxembourg gave the go-ahead to the highly sensitive initiative, agreeing a negotiating mandate for talks. There are fears that an agreement, part of moves to boost co-operation in the wake of 11 September, will be difficult to reach.

Apart from disagreements over the death penalty, European governments have deep reservations about other aspects of US justice, particularly the idea of military tribunals for foreign terrorist suspects, and laws that allow courts to impose sentences of life in jail without parole.

Officials were unable to say when the talks will begin, but the extradition issue is likely to be raised by the Spanish presidency of the EU at a summit next week in Washington.

The talks will also cover mutual legal assistance, which has often been limited by bureaucratic and legal hurdles, holding out the prospect of greater transatlantic co-operation in investigations.

After 11 September America asked Europe for help in several terrorism-related areas, including extradition and action against money-laundering. Many EU nations already have bilateral deals with America although not all extradite their nationals to the US. Germany, Portugal, Greece and Austria may have constitutional problems in doing so.

Many existing arrangements are in need of updating. For example, Portugal's extradition treaty dates from 1908 and Greece's treaty was agreed in 1931.

All 15 countries seek assurances that the death penalty, which the EU opposes, will not be applied to anyone sent to the US. The text of the negotiating mandate makes clear the EU would not accept any extradition treaty that allowed America to apply capital punishment to any suspect handed over. It says: "The prime objective of the Union shall be to insert a provision prohibiting both the imposition and the carrying out of the death penalty."

While America is usually willing to give assurances in specific cases it is not enthusiastic about any blanket declaration. The US Assistant Attorney General, Michael Chertoff, has said that "our experience is that these things are worked out best case-by-case."

US officials were cautious about the possibility of a deal which Washington would like to cover the extradition of any suspect, whatever nationality.

One spokesman said: "We are looking forward to seeing the details of the negotiating mandate. Our discussions on the issues of extradition and other areas of mutual legal assistance have increased dramatically since last [autumn]."

The Home Office minister Bob Ainsworth described the agreement as "vital". He said: "The UK's judicial co-operation with the US works well. We hope that this mandate will lead to an agreement between member states and the US which will bring benefits to us all."

Washington has bilateral agreements on mutual legal assistance, covering exchange of information and co-operation in combating crime, with Spain, Britain, France, Belgium, Greece, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Similar agreements have been signed, but not ratified, with Sweden and Ireland. There are no agreements with Germany, Denmark, Finland and Portugal.