Leading article: A ruling that confounds Strasbourg's critics

The decision proves the European Court does not always rule against UK interests

The sighs of relief in Westminster and Washington were almost audible yesterday, after European judges ruled that suspects cannot dodge extradition by claiming that life imprisonment in the US constitutes "inhuman and degrading" treatment. More important, however, is that the judgment gives the lie to claims that the European Court of Human Rights only ever rules against British interests, that it is a parody of justice offering legal escape clauses to criminals at the expense of common sense.

Even taken in isolation, the ECHR decision regarding the radical preacher Abu Hamza and four other alleged terrorists has much to recommend it. The alternative would not only have exposed the court to charges of hypocrisy, given the number of European prisons which compare unfavourably even with Colorado's dreaded ADX Florence. It would also have set a precedent rendering any attempt at extradition involving maximum-security detention almost impossible to expedite.

But the most striking aspect of the judgment on Mr Hamza et al is the comparison with the ruling on Abu Qatada earlier in the year. In January, the ECHR concluded that Mr Qatada could not be deported to Jordan because evidence extracted under torture might compromise his right to a fair trial. Arguably, that decision is also the right one. After all, defendants must surely be protected from allegations based on such unreliable evidence. And it is testament to the integrity of European institutions that the principle is not only enshrined in law, but is upheld even when it does not suit us.

It is also notable that the ECHR left rather more wriggle room in the Qatada case than its detractors acknowledge. Although the Home Secretary's efforts to broker a solution have so far proved fruitless, there is still sufficient room to manoeuvre that Mr Qatada's future residence in Britain is by no means secure.

For all that, the January ruling unleashed a torrent of abuse at the ECHR, with some Eurosceptic backbenchers even proposing that the UK suspend the European Convention on Human Rights altogether. It is to the Home Secretary's credit that she yesterday explicitly rejected suggestions that Britain might simply choose to ignore the rulings of the court. Meanwhile, the undeniable evidence that ECHR decisions are no foregone conclusion in favour of petitioners helps restore confidence in the court's authority.

What yesterday's ruling does not do is resolve the increasingly tangled wider issue of extradition. The disappointed father of Babar Ahmad, one of the suspects, responded with the claim that the Government is allowing British justice to be "subcontracted to the US". But the complex question as to where those accused of international crimes face trial is not a matter to be resolved by the ECHR alone.

It is, however, one that needs to be addressed. Neither are terrorist cases the only ones putting pressure on UK/US extradition rules. An independent, judge-led panel concluded only last October that the current treaty is not biased in favour of the US. But the perception of an imbalance remains, fuelled by campaigners on behalf of Christopher Tappin and Gary McKinnon, to name but two.

More than anything, it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that, in future, the wheels of justice do not grind quite so interminably slowly. Nearly five years have passed since Mr Hamza's first extradition hearing; Mr Ahmad has been held without charge for eight years; the case of another suspect, Adel Abdel Bary, has been running since 1999. ADX Florence may not be inhuman and degrading, but years in prison awaiting a decision on extradition most certainly are. Yesterday's ruling was an important step for the ECHR. But it leaves much for the British Government to do.