End of McKinnon’s 10-year ordeal raises new questions


Autistic rights campaigners have welcomed the government’s decision to end the 10-year extradition ordeal of Gary McKinnon, but say his case raises key questions for other disabled people within the criminal justice system.

Theresa May, the Conservative home secretary, announced this week that McKinnon would not be extradited to the United States because of the risk that he would commit suicide.

McKinnon, who has Asperger’s syndrome, faced a trial for allegedly hacking into US defense department computer systems in search of evidence of extra-terrestrial life, and a possible prison sentence of 60 years if convicted in the United States.

The director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, will now have to decide if McKinnon should be prosecuted in the UK.

May told MPs she had concluded that 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”.

Janis Sharp, McKinnon’s mother, said she was “overwhelmed and incredibly happy” and that when her son heard that he would not be extradited he “literally couldn’t speak, then he cried”.

She said: “It is so emotional, a culmination of 10 years and seven months. It will take time to go back to normal life.”

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil liberties organisation Liberty, said it was “a great day for compassion and common sense”, but that May’s decision was only possible because of the “much-maligned, much-misunderstood Human Rights Act of 1998”.

The decision not to extradite McKinnon was widely – although not universally – welcomed.

But some politicians and activists have begun to ask how May’s decision will affect other people with mental health conditions who are threatened with extradition.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, pointed to the case of Haroon Rashid Aswat, who is facing extradition on terrorism-related charges and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Others highlighted the case of Talha Ahsan, who also has Asperger’s syndrome and is said by his supporters to be suicidal, but was extradited to the US earlier this month to face terrorism-related charges.

Roderick Cobley, an autism rights campaigner, said the McKinnon decision was “a breath of hope to other people with invisible impairments like autism who are caught up in the criminal justice system”.

And he said the similar circumstances of Talha Ahsan meant there was “an excellent case for reversing that decision and having him brought back to the UK”.

But Larry Arnold, a prominent member of the National Autistic Society (NAS), said he was concerned that the McKinnon decision and “the assertion that we have diminished responsibility is something that might have implications for our autonomy or credibility to act and think for ourselves”.

But he said he agreed that the pressures placed upon McKinnon “and the threats of major injustice put him at a very real risk of suicide”, and that “Asperger’s syndrome may have contributed to that, but so would so many other things”.

Arnold said there had been “mixed opinions in the autistic community” about the case, with some wanting to see McKinnon extradited because they believed that if he had committed a crime, he should face the consequences.

Mark Lever, chief executive of the NAS, also said that reaction to McKinnon’s case from people with Asperger’s syndrome had been “mixed”.

He said: “I think there are people out there with Asperger’s syndrome who maybe felt that it was inappropriate that on the face of it Asperger’s syndrome was being used as an excuse.”

But he said the “vast majority” of people had been supportive of McKinnon, while the case highlighted the need for the criminal justice system to improve its understanding of hidden impairments, and for “better support for autism, and better understanding of the adaptations required in a range of public services”.

18 October 2012