No peace over US-UK extradition treaty

Former NatWest banker David Bermingham and his wife, Emma, arrive at a London police station for extradition to the United States on Enron-related fraud charges.

KAI RYSSDAL: Some British bankers are a long way from home. And they won't be seeing dear old England any time soon. A federal judge down in Texas ruled today the NatWest three won't be allowed to go home before their trial starts. Sometime next year. The three men used to work for the National Westminster Bank. They've been charged with Enron-related fraud in Houston. And they landed there last week after being extradited under the terms of a new treaty. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee started debating it today. It's already in force in the U.K. And highly controversial. From London, Stephen Beard reports


STEPHEN BEARD: Both houses of the British Parliament have condemned the treaty. The House of Lords called for it to be suspended, at least until the US has ratified it. At the moment, says member of Parliament Boris Johnson, it is much easier to extradite a British citizen to America than the other way round.
BORIS JOHNSON: They can hoover over to America, as if by some electromagnetic power, people against whom they are not obliged to provide any prima facie evidence. Whereas we have absolutely no such corresponding right to extradite to Britain suspects that we want.

Once again, says Johnson, Britain has been humiliated by the US. America's poodle adopting the familiar posture.

JOHNSON: We roll over and wave our legs in the air and allow our tummy to be tickled by America and we do absolutely whatever they want. And I do think it wrong.

But if, as he says, the British government is supine, no one can say the same about British business people. They fight like tigers to stay out of the American courts. They beg to be tried in Britain.

The British legal system may sometimes seem absurdly antiquated, like the stuff of comic opera, like Gilbert and Sullivan — wigs, buckled shoes and kneebritches all round. But for your average, alleged white-collar criminal here, this pantomime is vastly preferable to the grim rituals of American process: like the perp walk. And then the terrors of pretrial detention.

ANDREW HILTON: They're going to be banged up with rapists and mass murderers. And they're going to be shackled. And they're going to be treated as a sort of lower form of life.

But, says commentater Andrew Hilton, in Britain bankers and financiers and other wealthy people accused of white-collar crime are treated much more agreeably.

HILTON: Here in the UK they tend to get bail. They tend to go home to their mansions in the countryside. And, you know, they get to prepare their case with their lawyers over a glass of port.

It's hardly surprising that British financiers, champions of globalization, would rather stay at home when it comes to standing trial. And if it comes to conviction and punishment, there's an even bigger incentive to keep out of the American courts, says British criminal lawyer Roger Best.

ROGER BEST: There's great concern about the severity of sentences in the US for financial crime. I think we've seen in the Enron cases sentences up to 20 years, whereas in the UK we seldom see sentences for financial crime of more than seven years.

Not everyone favors Britain's comparitive leniency. Some take Gilbert and Sullivan's line . . .

[AUDIO FROM OPERA: "Let the punishment fit the crime, the punishment fit the crime."]

One commentator says the real imbalance between the US and the UK is not in extradition but in punishment for financial crime. He deplores what he calls Britain's ultralight sentencing.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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