Britain blocks extradition to US of 'Pentagon hacker' Gary McKinnon

Order withdrawn over fears that suspect would try to kill himself if sent to face charges that he accessed American military computer networks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2012, 4:55am

British authorities yesterday blocked a long-standing demand for the extradition of Gary McKinnon, a computer hacker wanted in the United States to face charges of intruding into Pentagon computer networks.

McKinnon, 46, who has been facing the accusations for a decade, suffers from Asperger's syndrome and is prone to depression, British officials said.

In light of the "high risk" the suspect would commit suicide if sent to the US, Home Secretary Theresa May told Parliament that she had "withdrawn the extradition order against Mr McKinnon" to safeguard his rights.

The dramatic decision - the first time an extradition has been halted under a 2003 treaty - prompted immediate delight from those who campaigned to prevent McKinnon's removal.

"Thank you, Theresa May, from the bottom of my heart - I always knew you had the strength and courage to do the right thing," McKinnon's mother, Janis Sharp, said.

MP David Burrowes tweeted: "Compassion and pre-election promises delivered today."

US prosecutors say McKinnon gained unauthorised access to 97 government computers between February 2001 and March 2002, causing damage worth US$566,000. He insists that he hacked into Pentagon networks to seek evidence about UFOs.

US officials have described his actions as "the biggest military computer hack of all time".

American authorities sought his extradition under the 2003 treaty, which British critics of the legislation assert was designed to help prosecute terrorists but has been misused by US prosecutors as a catch-all measure in less-onerous cases unrelated to national security. The contentious treaty enables US authorities to seek extradition of suspects without providing substantive evidence of their purported crimes.

"Mr McKinnon is accused of serious crimes," May said. "But there is also no doubt that he is seriously ill. He has Asperger's syndrome and suffers from depressive illness. The legal question before me is now whether the extent of that illness is sufficient to preclude extradition.

"After careful consideration of all of the relevant material, I have concluded that Mr McKinnon's extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr McKinnon's human rights."

British critics of the treaty have said the pact effectively outsources British judicial responsibilities to the United States without securing reciprocal benefits or distinguishing between serious and lesser crimes.

Rights campaigners hailed the ruling. Shami Chakrabarti, head of the civil rights group Liberty, called it "a great day for rights, freedoms and justice in the United Kingdom".

Activists also expressed hope that May would now use her discretion to halt the extradition of Richard O'Dwyer, who is accused of infringing US copyright laws.

McKinnon was first arrested in 2002, and again in 2005. An order for his extradition was made in July 2006, but McKinnon's family and rights campaigners began a series of legal battles. His immediate fate in the British justice system remained unclear.

In 2009, the Crown Prosecution Service said that while the evidence against McKinnon justified charges of "unauthorised access with intent", it "does not come near to reflecting the criminality that is alleged by the American authorities".

Additional reporting by The Guardian