Sunday, July 27, 2008
When he wakes up this morning, Gary McKinnon will be 72 hours from learning whether he is on the fast track to a 60-year prison sentence, thanks to his obsession with aliens.
McKinnon, 42, from Enfield in north London, is accused by American prosecutors of illegally accessing top-secret computer systems in what they claimed in one legal document was ‘the biggest military computer hack of all time’.
The self-taught IT expert insists he was simply looking for information the US government had on UFOs and is adamant that he never damaged any of its computer systems. This argument, however, cuts little ice with the Americans, who are trying to extradite him. Five years after being told by British police that he would probably get a six-month community service order for his exploits, McKinnon finds himself still wanted by the US authorities. A 2006 High Court ruling granted the extradition request, and on Wednesday the House of Lords will decide on McKinnon’s appeal against that ruling.
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That it should come to this is little short of outrageous, say his supporters. Soon after he was arrested in 2002, US prosecutors appeared to offer McKinnon a deal: if he agreed to extradition and admitted his guilt, he would get a sentence of three to four years, most of which could be served in the UK. When McKinnon rejected the offer – made in confidential meetings at the US embassy – his lawyers were told ‘all bets were off’. They claim the US prosecutors upped the stakes, suggesting he would be ‘treated like a terrorist’ if he did not agree to face trial and plead guilty in the US.
McKinnon claims that at one stage there were suggestions that he would face a military tribunal, possibly at Guantánamo Bay. ‘They said they wanted to see me fry,’ he said.
McKinnon’s lawyers claim that attempts to force him to accept a plea bargain constituted ‘an unlawful abuse of the court process’.
A Lords ruling in favour of McKinnon, who has become a cause célèbre for UFO enthusiasts, computer users and civil liberties groups, would force US prosecutors to restart their extradition process in the magistrates’ courts, a major setback that could have ramifications for other Britons resisting removal to the US. A ruling against him would mean an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights and leave him in legal limbo, banned from travelling abroad, forced to report to police every Friday, and barred from accessing the internet.
In a further twist, it has emerged that a crucial file containing details of the early meetings with the US prosecutors, at which the offers were apparently made, has gone missing from the office of McKinnon’s solicitor. A laptop holding details of the same meetings was stolen from the car of one of his barristers.
This article was posted: Sunday, July 27, 2008 at 8:23 am