McKinnon sees new hope for mental plea

UFO hacker Gary McKinnon has every chance of winning his battle against US extradition after being granted another chance to convince the courts that his removal would be inhumane.hhh

But not because the law is on his side. Merely because time is on his side, and some very good lawyers.

The hapless hacker was lucky to spend Christmas at home after the parsimonious Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, insisted there was nothing he could do to stop McKinnon's extradition to face charges for hacking into US military computer systems. The Home Secretary has made it very clear, time after time, that neither the law nor the government are on McKinnon's side.

The latest ray of hope, however, may yet prove to be the saviour of McKinnon, if for no other reason than it may stretch his case out to the other side of the general election. The country's expectation is that on the other side will preside a Conservative government, which would be headed by a man who has lent his name to McKinnon's campaign.

The hacker's mother - who effectively runs his campaign against extradition - is sceptical that the Conservatives will actually tell US prosecutors to sod off. She appears disappointed with government enough to mistrust the loose statements that David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has made for McKinnon's cause.

The substance of Cameron's criticism has been of the extradition treaty the UK signed with the US in 2003 and under which McKinnon was summoned before US courts to answer for his piffling little hobby hacks of computers that should have been secured better in the first place. Cameron's calls for the treaty to be reviewed sound bold but are as helpful to McKinnon as the US charges against the hacker are substantial, which is not very much at all.

The men in black would have come for McKinnon long before any extradition review was completed.

Anything short of a pledge to keep McKinnon home smells of snake oil. McKinnon's family are nevertheless grateful for the cross-party support they have received from individual MPs. Notably, David Burrowes, the Conservative MP for the constituency of Enfield and Southgate, where McKinnon lives; Keith Vaz, the Labour chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee and MP for Leicester who called the Home Secretary to explain his failure to come to the British hacker's defence; and Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who stood beside Mckinnon's Mum Janis on her protest outside the Home Office in December.

Noble gestures all, though no-one has actually pledged to stop McKinnon's extradition.

That shouldn't pose a problem for justice because no-one actually intends to stop McKinnon's extradition anyway. They are making a more subtle play for time because no-one has any better ideas, and time at least is what the courts keep delivering.

That may yet be time enough to milk McKinnon's tragic case for two important lessons for British justice. The first is that the Human Rights Act, under which McKinnon's miraculous reprieves have been won in the High Court, is too weak to do its job when faced with someone who has a fragile mental condition and an extradition order resting on trivial or trumped up charges.

The second is that people with autism and Asperger's Syndrome like Gary McKinnon are being drawn unjustly into the criminal system largely as a failure of the society in which they live to recognise and support their condition. The criminal justice system is then failing to make just accommodations for their particular disabilities. The result, experts say, are prisons with a disproportionate number of people with an autistic spectrum disorder.

The system is so far off dealing with these two shameful deficiencies of British justice that McKinnon failed to convince the High Court last year that his Asperger's Syndrome was a reason to try him for his hacking crime in a UK court and refuse the US order for his extradition. He may have last week been granted another attempt to argue his case before the High Court. But this time it is on the basis that his mental health has been so shredded by the five-year extradition battle that it would be cruel to extradite him instead of prosecuting him in the UK.

The High Court had relied partly on inhumane mental health precedents to demonstrate how the Human Rights Act was powerless to prevent McKinnon's extradition for the sake of his vulnerable Aspergic mind. A different judge in the same court may find reason in those same precedents or intervention after all.

But time is McKinnon's greatest ally. As long as McKinnon's lawyers can keep finding new aspects of these immature rights and extradition laws to test for his cause, and as long as MP's can keep the parliamentary charade playing its colourful chorus, the hapless hacker might even outlive the mean old goats in Washington who insist on pursuing this pointless prosecution.

And then perhaps if Gary McKinnon kept his head down he might eke out something approaching a normal life in some quiet corner of North London. It won't be justice but it will be a darn site closer than anything that's gone by that name in his case till now.