When Anne Sacoolas drove on ‘the wrong side of the road’ in sleepy, rural Northamptonshire, she was not expecting to kill anyone, but as the tragedy of Harry Dunn’s death shows, this is exactly what happened that fateful day in the summer of 2019. Since then there has been an extensive battle to try and secure justice for Harry’s family. Sacoolas was allowed to leave the country, claiming diplomatic immunity, a legal status it turns out she did not have, as it does not apply to dependents, only staff. Even so, the US department of state has refused an extradition request, claiming their decision is ‘final’.
Despite having a so called ‘special relationship’, the actual relationship between the UK and USA on extradition has been anything but ‘special’, especially since the signing of the infamous 2003 treaty, long accused of being ‘lopsided’ and requiring a ‘higher threshold’ for evidence to extradite someone from the US to the UK.
Although the Sacoolas case is the first time the USA has actively refused an extradition request from the UK under the treaty (most requests are usually for British citizens anyway), the Americans have often been heavy handed when they go after British nationals, casting their net wide for low hanging fruit, such as white collar criminals and men and women caught up in elaborate ‘sting operations’. This should rightly scare middle England as much as the career criminals who probably first come to mind.
These issues also come at a time when Britain is burning its bridges with the EU on justice and security, likely losing access to valuable criminal databases as well as the ability to return asylum seekers to the continent. This will make cross border co-operation on justice more not less difficult and with Britain actively boasting of its desire to break international law, it could also throw up further legal problems with states outside the EU.
Britain needs to be a leader not a follower when it comes to both the rule of law and the way in which we prosecute and deal with those accused of crimes. We have rightly refused to share evidence with the US over the ‘Beatles’ terrorists because of the possible use of the death penalty. This is not out of sympathy for those accused of monstrous crimes, but due to a longstanding and principled global fight against capital punishment.
Although our government refuses any request for extradition that may see capital punishment imposed, we do still have a blind spot when it comes to extraditing on the basis of quality of justice and prison conditions. The United States in particular practices a form of coercive plea bargaining that is used to pressurise defendants into admitting guilt. This now means that 97% of cases do not go to trial. Britain does not have a great record when It comes to this either (90% for comparison), but the stakes are much higher for a British citizen extradited to the US. This is owing to the hugely disproportionate sentencing that is practiced there, where even relatively innocuous crimes could see an inflated sentence measured in decades rather than years. Someone like Anne Sacoolas would not face anything as harsh if Britain somehow managed to extradite her back to the East Midlands.
Britain very rarely imposes a whole life tariff, whereas in America it is par for the course, where the system is designed to be ‘overly punitive’. This is despite the fact there is little evidence that such eye watering sentences act as an effective deterrent.
When it came to Gary McKinnon’s extradition, a government with guts would have questioned why any cybercrime should have come with a possible sixty year sentence, a classic case of trying to extract a guilty plea and denying a trial. Instead the UK government seemed to act as though these disproportionate sentences were in some way equivalent to our own procedures.
Then we come to prison conditions. Although again Britain does not have a great track record, of all developed states the USA is on another level entirely. Even before you get to court, the lengthy remand system could see you spend years awaiting a trial, and in some situations you could find yourself facing up to 23 hours a day in confinement under ‘special administrative measures’, and only allowed an hour or so for recreation, whilst shackled. This is the likely fate of Julian Assange if extradited from the UK. Indeed American prisons are routinely condemned by Amnesty International, with the common use of solitary confinement being seen as ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ in the opinion of a UN torture expert.
Some countries like Norway have in the past refused to even extradite American citizens to the USA based on ‘inhumane’ conditions in prison. In 2015 Ireland did something similar for an Irish citizen, this time due to apprehension about the use of solitary confinement. For those of us with clear concerns, coronavirus may be doing our job for us, with the poor conditions, hygiene and access to healthcare of American prisons, there are real questions being asked when it comes to the safety of those extradited during a pandemic.
When it comes to something longer lasting though, the British government needs to stand up for everyone, regardless of what they have been accused of. We should not allow a more isolated UK post Brexit to renege on its principles. We should be more ready to refuse extradition based on conditions or judicial process to any country with a questionable record. We should also seek to lead by example; instead of breaking international law we should highlight our commitment to improving standards in our own legal and penal system. Then when we demand the return of the Anne Sacoolases of the world, we know we are justified in doing so.