Leading article: Justice must always begin at home

Extradition is a sound principle. It is right that we should be able to ask friendly democratic countries to return for trial in the UK, individuals accused of committing serious crimes here. And it is right that we should reciprocate. But fears that the process has been abused, and is skewed against British citizens, were yesterday supported in a review by a cross-party parliamentary committee. Countries such as the United States have demanded the extradition of individuals whose crimes are deemed not so grave in this country. Others, in Europe, have demanded British citizens long before there is evidence of a serious case against them.

And this week, by coincidence, an Essex teenager, Ryan Cleary, was arrested on suspicion of involvement in cyber attacks which may have targeted CIA and other US computer systems. Before any extradition request is considered, key changes are needed in our current laws. Those accused of crimes which span two countries should be tried first in the UK. Extraditable offences should be those deemed by UK courts, not just foreign ones, to be sufficiently serious. Another hacker, Gary McKinnon, who is fighting extradition to the US, did little more than leave behind abusive anti-American messages. Other cases since the European Arrest Warrant was introduced in 2004 have been relatively minor.

Reforms are needed to guard against the tendency of some European countries to issue extradition warrants to assist them in gathering evidence – rather than because a proper case has already been amassed. There is a grave risk of injustice in such speculative charges. Extradition should be granted only where a serious prima facie case exists. And extraditing jurisdictions should be required to show processes are in place for a fair trial, including adequate translation.

Most important, it should be British courts which decide whether such conditions have been met. The danger of leaving it to politicians is all too evident, as was clear from the unbalanced nature of the agreement put in place by the Blair government. It must be our judges who decide the proper balance between justice, security and liberty.

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