Why do politicians and media flock to Gary McKinnon’s cause but stay silent about likes of Talha Ahsan?
Our legal system is host to appalling and unjustified double standards
“To extradite a man diagnosed with Asperger syndrome to America for trial would have been extraordinarily cruel and inhumane.” Thus spoke Boris Johnson yesterday afternoon in reaction to the Home Secretary’s decision to halt the extradition of Gary McKinnon.
It’s a shame the Mayor didn’t speak up for another Londoner who was extradited to the United States just two weeks ago. Talha Ahsan, from Tooting, was bundled onto a private charter flight to the United States despite the fact that he too has an Aspergers diagnosis and is considered a suicide risk.
Theresa May did nothing to halt his extradition, in fact she welcomed it. Very few politicians spoke up for Talha and there was no outrage from the National Autistic Society that a vulnerable man was being flown thousands of miles away from home to face charges of alleged crimes that were carried out on UK soil.
So what’s the difference? Well Talha is a brown skinned Muslim accused of running a pro-jihadi website whilst Gary McKinnon is a white middle class non-religious hacker. One is political/media gold, the other is dynamite.
The timing of Theresa May’s intervention in the Gary McKinnon case is cynical in the extreme. It certainly isn’t lost on many members of the Muslim community that Mrs May waited until after Talha Ahsan, his co-accused Babar Ahmad and three other terrorism suspects including hook handed hate preacher Abu Hamza were locked up Stateside before she halted McKinnon’s extradition and announced plans to bring in a so-called “forum bar”.
If passed (and it needs new legislation) this would give British judges the power to decide whether or not to prosecute an extraditee in a British or foreign court. In Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan’s cases, a forum bar might have been the difference between extradition and a domestic prosecution.
Does this matter? Well yes, because it shows a disconnect across wide sections of the political and media classes over the law and how it should be applied. A fundamental principle of an open and transparent judicial system is that everyone is treated equally under the law, regardless of the crime. But the reality in the case of extradition has been anything but equal. While effectively campaigning to save Gary McKinnon, this Government knowingly sold Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad down the river.
Few people, be they politicians or media pundits, wept for Ahmad and Ahsan because they are accused of Islamist inspired terrorism offences. (They were also not helped by the fact that their legal cases were lumped in together with Abu Hamza, Khalid al-Fawaaz and Adel Abdul Bary – three much less sympathetic figures with less controversial cases against them). But when you look at what they are accused of how different is to the crimes that Gary McKinnon has admitted to?
Both allegedly used computers based in the UK to run illegal networks. In Ahmad and Ahsan’s case they allegedly ran Azzam Publications, a set of vicious pro-violence Islamist websites that encouraged Muslims to fight jihad in places like Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya (this was before the 11 September attacks and therefore not a site that was encouraging attacks directly on the UK or US).
McKinnon – who admits his hacking offences – has often been portrayed as a harmless computer geek who simply went on a few cyber wanderings to discover whether the United States was hiding evidence of extra-terrestrial life. The indictment against him tells a different story. American prosecutors say that between February 2001 and March 2002 he penetrated 81 military and 16 Nasa computers, stole documents and passwords, and even managed to shut down an entire Washington-based military network for 24 hours, causing $700,000 (£350,000) worth of damage.
None of the allegations against McKinnon, Ahmed or Ahsan are victimless crimes. They are serious and – if true – should be prosecuted. What initially angered extradition campaigners was the fact that all three men supposedly committed crimes on UK soil but were not prosecuted here. Instead the British authorities outsourced the responsibility for prosecuting them to the Americans.
But while politicians, the Daily Mail, celebrities and media pundits flocked to Gary McKinnon’s cause, the same groups were virtually silent on Ahmad and Ahsan. Babar Ahmad was able to get a little publicity owing to the fact that he recovered damages for being viciously beaten by the Metropolitan Police – who were subsequently acquitted of assault charges – when he was first arrested and was the longest held-without-charge British citizen in prison. In contrast Talha Ahsan’s family struggled to get any of the campaign momentum that they deserved.
Mohammed Shafiq, from the Ramadhan Foundation, eloquently summed up the feelings of many who were angered by the Government’s timing.
“This announcement sends out the message to Muslims, Black and ethnic minority citizens that there are different rules for different people,” he said. “If you happen to be white and not a Muslim you’ll be protected but if you happen to be a Muslim and Black/ Asian God help you.”
There is already a powerful perception among many black and ethnic minority groups that the scales of justice are tipped against them. The Government’s unedifying double standards when it comes to extradition has done little to dispel that belief.