Leading article: Trapped by an unequal treaty

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The Independent Online

Whether David Bermingham, Gary Mulgrew and Giles Darby have committed any crime, on this side of the Atlantic or the other, is immaterial at this stage. That no charges have been brought in this country does not, of itself, mean that there are no charges to be answered. Equally, if Texas prosecutors want to bring charges there relating to crimes allegedly committed here, that is for them and the US judicial system to decide. The point is not, yet, the men's innocence or guilt, but the procedures to which they have been subject.

They are being dealt with under fast-track arrangements set out in a UK-US treaty concluded in 2003, which do not require either side to make a prima facie case for extradition. Passed in the dark shadow of 11 September, the law was designed primarily to speed the transfer of terrorist suspects. As the case of the NatWest Three clearly shows, it is being applied far more widely. Having exhausted all instances of appeal, the men could be handed over to the US authorities within days.

Much is being made by their supporters of the conditions they face in the US. As non-Americans, they are unlikely to be granted bail. They could spend two years or more in prison before their case comes to trial, and will have to spend a fortune on US lawyers. The real injustice, however, is that the men are being extradited under a reciprocal treaty that currently has no reciprocity. The US Senate, concerned about legal safeguards for US citizens facing extradition, has so far refused to vote on its ratification. So, while British citizens face fast-track removal to the US, Americans face nothing of the kind the other way.

In the Commons yesterday, Mr Blair insisted that the treaty had been concluded to bring the US into the international system, and he promised the men and their families "all the support and assurances we can give". He failed to explain, however, why Britain was honouring to the letter a treaty by which the other side is not bound. Would it have been so difficult to arrange for fast-track procedures to be conditional on reciprocity? And why will the Government not suspend operation of the treaty until the US has ratified it? This would be the obvious, and equitable, way out.