Leading article: An unequal relationship

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The Independent Online

It is easy in all the hoo-haa about the so-called NatWest Three - the trio of bankers who are, on Thursday, to be extradited to the United States to face fraud charges - to be sucked into a raft of unconnected assumptions. Extradition laws between the UK and the US are a mess. That does not mean that the three men, whose alleged crime arises out of the collapse of the giant American accounting firm Enron, should not be sent to the United States for trial.

The three men have argued, in British courts and through a clever PR campaign, that if they have committed any offence they should be tried for it here. But it seems clear that the crime, if it was such, was committed in the US, where prosecutions against their alleged co-conspirators are already well advanced. There seem no compelling grounds to question the findings of the British High Court that the extradition was lawful and that their human rights were not being breached as they claimed.

That being said, something clearly needs to be done about the present extradition arrangements - a realisation which has only belatedly dawned upon the Government. It is sending the Home Office minister, Baroness Scotland, to Washington to try to persuade the US Senate to ratify the latest treaty, which is in force in the UK but not yet in the US. The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, will press the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, for the same outcome.

They have left all this a bit late. Under the present state of affairs the US does not have to provide prima facie evidence when requesting the extradition of people from the UK. But the UK does have to show "probable cause" when seeking the extradition of American citizens. To make matters worse, the new law was introduced here, under the Royal Prerogative, by a statutory instrument signed by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, without any parliamentary vote or even debate.

All this was supposed to assist in the "war on terror" but most of the cases proceeding under the new arrangements are for fraud offences. It may be good that the Americans are, post-Enron, taking a much tougher line on white-collar crime . But the inequity in the way their and our citizens are treated is wrong. It is therefore only right that the House of Lords, when it comes to consider the Police and Justice Bill this week, should remove the United States from the current fast-track extradition system.

Only if the US Senate ratifies the new arrangements should the Government think about reintroducing them here. The special judicial relationship must be equitable if it is to survive.