Long arm of the US law

America's use of the anti-terrorist extradition treaty is creating unlikely martyrs.

by Patience Wheatcroft
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In the US, crime against the corporation is taken just as seriously as crime against the person. This was the case long before Eliot Spitzer, the New York Attorney General, began his crusade against Wall Street. Corporate criminals were at risk of long jail sentences decades before Martha Stewart was facing the somewhat daunting challenge of running a lifestyle business from a state penitentiary.

Now the US is reaching out a long arm to try to drag British offenders into its courts. It is a development causing alarm to legal purists as much as to nervous business people. In the process, it is creating some unlikely martyrs. Three brash bankers and a burly former chief executive are now struggling to avoid extradition to the US under a treaty originally intended to enable speedy judgment to be meted out to suspected terrorists.

What the US authorities have been unable to understand is why other countries, including Britain, appear to be so little perturbed by what Americans deem to be heinous crimes. An accusation of running a cartel, for instance, has routinely brought with it the prospect of jail. Yet even when the UK decided that it was not keen on price-fixing, this was seen as only a civil offence until Gordon Brown took over as Chancellor. His determination that the UK should emulate the US economy led him to conclude that price-fixing should carry criminal penalties in Britain too; since 2003, it has.

Ian Norris does not deny having been involved in price-fixing. But when the former chief executive of Morgan Crucible was colluding over the prices of carbon brushes in the US and Europe, it was not a criminal offence in the UK. That has not prevented the US Justice Department deciding that it wants to see him in a US dock. Since he hasn't hopped on a plane to surrender himself, he is already judged to be a fugitive. If the US succeeds in extraditing him, he will be denied bail and could face a year in jail while the case against him is put together.

Not surprisingly, Norris is fighting hard to avoid this. In his sixties and recovering from cancer, he had other plans for his retirement. He is astonished at the way the 2002 Extradition Act is being used against him. When parliament first learned of the British government's agreement with the US for a reciprocal treaty to allow extradition on mere hearsay evidence, without a prima facie case against the defendant having first to be made on his home territory, it was made clear that this was a necessary post-9/11 anti-terrorism measure.

The US has, however, decided that it can put the measure to good use in grabbing white-collar criminals whose offences might not even have been committed in the US. The UK government seems prepared to let this happen. It is all the more surprising that the US has not actually got round to signing its side of the treaty. So if the UK has ideas of a fast-track extradition of suspected IRA terrorists taking refuge in New York, it will be disappointed.

Despite the lack of reciprocity on the part of the US, however, the judge at Bow Street magistrates' court concluded at the beginning of June that Norris can be delivered to the US Justice Department. He is pledged to fight the case up to the House of Lords, and is also applying for a judicial review of the legality of the process. In the meantime, he is a worried man.

Equally worried are three men who, as bankers employed by the then National Westminster Bank, found themselves embroiled in the Enron saga. The allegations against them relate to many missing millions of pounds - offences committed in Britain against a British organisation. Yet the US is employing the 2002 treaty to have them tried in America, where Enron remains a cause of immense anger and embarrassment. Fears of how that might influence the outcome of any trial have helped propel the trio into the extraordinary move of demanding a judicial review of the Serious Fraud Office's failure to put them on trial in the UK.

Three greedy bankers do not immediately inspire public sympathy; neither does their plight represent a cause that politicians will be anxious to embrace. But whatever the rights and wrongs of their behaviour, or that of Norris, there is a strong reason why politicians should speak out against what is happening to these individuals.

There are reasons enough to discourage people from a business career without the risk of being yanked to the US to spend months in jail awaiting trial without a case first having to be made in Britain. This does not equate to the popular idea of British justice.

Even those who would be prepared to countenance such rough justice, though, would surely want to see the British government refusing to co-operate until the Americans had at least made the deal reciprocal. Norris would not refer to Blair as 'Bush's poodle', but others might spot another instance of a lopsided special relationship.

Patience Wheatcroft is business and City editor of The Times.

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