Page 2 of 2   <      

Stalled Extradition for Al-Qaeda Suspects Costs Britain

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 attorney who represents Abdel Bary, predicted 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 Strasbourg, France, which under British law could assert jurisdiction in the case.

Peirce said her client was innocent. She also dismissed the suggestion that defense lawyers were to blame for the delays, calling it "baloney."

The Home Office, she said, has "been sitting on this, which at the end of the day is a very complex case, a very difficult case."

<       2

© 2009 The Washington Post Company