Britain Pays to Keep Suspects From U.S. Hands
Saturday, May 2, 2009
The British government has paid nearly $900,000 in legal fees on behalf of three associates of Osama bin Laden who have fended off attempts by the U.S. government to extradite them for a decade, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
The three al-Qaeda suspects were arrested in London shortly after the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people. British authorities pledged to extradite them swiftly to the United States to stand trial for their alleged roles in the attacks.
But the cases have plodded through the British bureaucracy with no end in sight, undermining transatlantic cooperation on counterterrorism and highlighting how easy it can be for international terrorism suspects to elude the reach of U.S. prosecutors.
The stalled extraditions have proved expensive for British taxpayers. In Britain, as in the United States, the government covers legal expenses for criminal defendants who cannot afford lawyers. Critics say the combination of free lawyers and a byzantine legal system enables al-Qaeda sympathizers in Britain to file frivolous appeals and avoid deportation or extradition.
According to documents obtained by The Post under Britain's Freedom of Information Act, the U.K. Legal Services Commission has paid the equivalent of $371,207 in legal fees for Khalid al-Fawwaz, a Saudi citizen who served as bin Laden's public relations representative in London from 1994 until his arrest in 1998.
U.S. officials charge that Fawwaz played a key role in recruiting "military trainees" for al-Qaeda, served as a communications go-between, and gave logistical support to terrorist cells in Africa and Afghanistan. He is also accused of supplying bin Laden with a satellite phone that the al-Qaeda leader used to call Fawwaz and other associates in London more than 200 times.
The documents show that British taxpayers have covered $163,420 in legal bills for Adel Abdel Bary, an Egyptian confidant of al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The Legal Services Commission said it also paid $323,149 in legal costs for Ibrahim Eidarous, another Egyptian fighting extradition to the United States. Eidarous died of leukemia in July while under house arrest in London. The commission did not provide a breakdown of the fees or disclose who received them.
According to U.S. court documents, investigators in London found fingerprints belonging to Abdel Bary and Eidarous on a fax sent to news organizations asserting that al-Qaeda was responsible for the 1998 embassy bombings.
U.S. officials have tried for years to speed up the extradition of terrorism suspects from Britain. In 2003, after acknowledging that its laws were cumbersome and arcane, Britain negotiated a new extradition treaty with the United States and passed a law designed to "fast track" extraditions to several countries.
Since then, however, Britain has handed over only one terrorism suspect to the United States: Syed Hashmi, a U.S. citizen charged with supplying military equipment to al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan. He was transferred to U.S. custody in May 2007 and is awaiting trial.
The slow pace of extraditions was raised again this week at a meeting in London between U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and British Justice Secretary Jack Straw.
Afterward, Holder said he thought the system was gradually improving. "I think the process has actually been speeding up, where we have seen increasing numbers of people coming from the United States to England, and from England to the United States," he told the Associated Press.
Holder was referring to extraditions in general, not just terrorism cases, said Matthew A. Miller, a Justice Department spokesman.
The al-Qaeda cases have been delayed by court challenges and administrative appeals that have moved at a glacial pace.
In December 2001, the defendants' transfer to the United States appeared to be imminent when the House of Lords, serving as Britain's appellate court of last resort, ruled that the British government had authority to deport them.
The British government, however, waited more than six years to act on the ruling as it weighed further challenges from defense lawyers. Finally, on March 12, 2008, British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith ordered that Fawwaz and Abdel Bary be surrendered to U.S. custody. The Home Office is responsible for domestic law enforcement in Britain.
In a letter last month responding to a separate Freedom of Information Act request from The Post, a Home Office official attributed the delay to "a range of matters," including allegations from defense lawyers that the U.S. government might subject their clients to the death penalty, torture, military tribunals or criminal trials that would be inherently unfair.
"The process admittedly took longer than anyone would have wished or foresaw," Bob Wood, head of the Home Office's extradition section, wrote in the April 24 letter -- the first time the British government has commented publicly on the cases in four years.
"We were and remain anxious to bring finality to these long-running cases," Wood added. "At one and the same time, however, we were anxious and under a duty to deal fairly and properly with all of the material for consideration."
Fawwaz and Abdel Bary have asked Britain's High Court to review the Home Office's extradition order. A decision is pending.
But Gareth Peirce, a prominent London civil rights lawyer who represents Abdel Bary, predicted that the cases will continue no matter what the High Court does.
"If we win, the U.S. would appeal," she said in an interview in December. "If we lose, we'd appeal as far as we could go in this country, and then to Strasbourg." She was referring to the European Court of Human Rights, based in France.