British Computer Hacker Won't Be Extradited To U.S.

The U.K. has denied extradition to the United States for a computer hacker who is accused of breaking into military systems. British authorities say they feared he would commit suicide. The U.S. sought Gary McKinnon's extradition in relation to an incident 10 years ago.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A British hacker accused of breaking into Pentagon and NASA computers 10 years ago will not be extradited to the United States, that announcement today from the British government. As Vicki Barker reports from London, it is the first time such a request has been blocked since the U.S. and U.K. signed an extradition treaty in the aftermath of 9/11.

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: Gary McKinnon wasn't at his own victory news conference. He's avoided the cameras for years. It was his mother, Janis Sharp, who fought for his cause, winning over some of Britain's biggest celebrities, activists and politicians. Today's decision marks the end of an ordeal she has called a water-boarding of the mind.

JANIS SHARP: We've done it. We've won for the little person, not just the elite and the privileged, but for the little person.

BARKER: When he was first arrested here 10 years ago, U.S. prosecutors claimed McKinnon had committed the biggest military computer hack of all time, causing $800,000 worth of damage to military computer systems.

The 46-year-old, who has since been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, insists he was just looking for evidence of UFOs. Repeated appeals were rejected. Then two years ago, a high court judge put the whole process on hold while McKinnon's mental state could be evaluated. Today, Home Secretary Theresa May told Britain's parliament she is now convinced extradition would violate McKinnon's statutory human rights because psychiatrists had concluded it would certainly lead to his suicide.

THERESA MAY: I have, therefore, withdrawn the expedition - extradition order against Mr. McKinnon.

BARKER: May also announced she plans to deprive herself of the power to make such decisions in the future, saying they're best assessed in and by a court of law and not by individual home secretaries. There was a dissenting voice in the chamber from one of May's predecessors. Alan Johnson was home secretary under the previous labor government, which consistently supported extradition.

ALAN JOHNSON: The U.S. were perfectly within their rights. And it was extremely - and it's reasonable of them to seek his extradition. We now do not know whether Gary McKinnon will ever have to face justice.

BARKER: But Johnson's was a minority voice. The case of Gary McKinnon has become a huge cause celebre here with celebrities like Bob Geldof and Julie Christie on board. Dominic Raab, a lawmaker for the governing Conservative Party, says this was not a de facto rejection of the 2003 extradition treaty between the U.S. and the U.K.

DOMINIC RAAB: It's a modest safeguard. All we're really talking about is tweaking those U.S. arrangements.

BARKER: But human rights campaigners here are claiming a victory. They've fought to have British suspects tried in British courts, even though U.S. prosecutors have successfully argued that jurisdiction is determined by the location of the victim, not the alleged perpetrator.

May's decision to hand more power to the courts opens up the possibility that a British judge may now refuse an extradition request from the U.S. if he or she decides it would be fairer to try the suspect here. As for McKinnon, it's up to Britain's chief prosecutor to decide if he should now face British justice. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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