Leading article: A failure of common sense

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The Independent Online

It will be six weeks before the High Court rules on the judicial review of the decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions not to prosecute the British computer nerd Gary McKinnon who has admitted hacking into 97 US military computers from his London home in the months following the September 11 terror attacks. Mr McKinnon, who has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism that leads to obsessive behaviour, claims he was looking for evidence of UFOs which he is convinced the Pentagon is suppressing. The US wants to extradite him to face a jail term of up to 60 years, which is why Mr McKinnon's lawyers want him tried in the UK.

Common sense dictates that Gary McKinnon should be treated with a light hand. Though he placed abusive anti-US messages on their computers he did no vandalism, created no viruses, stole nothing and did not act with malicious intent. Previous cases involving Britons who hacked into US computers have all been handled in the UK. Compassion also demands leniency. His autism is severe, and doctors have warned he could commit suicide if extradited. No purpose would be served by giving him a long prison sentence thousands of miles from his family.

Sadly our lawyers and politicians have failed on both common sense and compassion so far. Lengthy legal process have fallen short so far. A trial in the UK would test the dubious claim that his activities threatened US national security or have cost it nearly $1m. If he is found guilty of an offence under Britain's Computer Misuse Act 1990 he would face only a short jail sentence, or possibly just a requirement for psychological treatment.

Our courts and Government need to get a sense of proportion. The Home Secretary Alan Johnson should set aside any considerations about offering Mr McKinnon up as a sacrificial lamb to maintain relations between the UK and the US. He should halt the extradition process immediately and ask British prosecutors to reconsider their decision to leave the matter to the US courts. Such a move would also send a clear signal to the two High Court judges involved in the judicial review process. It is time that Britain's fabled sense of pragmatism asserted itself.