LONDON — In a case that has dogged Anglo-American relations for a decade, Britain said Tuesday that it would not send a confessed computer hacker to the United States to face charges relating to a spectacular break-in of Pentagon databases and other sensitive networks around the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Home Secretary Theresa May also said that the British government, Washington’s closest ally, would reexamine its controversial fast-track extradition treaty with the U.S. to see how some suspects might be kept here in Britain for trial rather than shipped across the Atlantic.
Speaking in Parliament, May told lawmakers that because of his mental health problems, 46-year-old Gary McKinnon would not be extradited to the U.S. McKinnon has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, and suicidal thoughts. Handing him over for prosecution would breach his human rights, even though he stands accused of “serious crimes,” May said.
The politically fraught decision is likely to rouse the ire of U.S. officials, who have sought for years to get McKinnon on American soil. They say that his hacking of nearly 100 U.S. military computers, which he admits, caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and sparked a disruptive network crash soon after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States was disappointed by the decision not to extradite McKinnon, and is examining the details of it.
McKinnon maintains that he broke into the computers to look for secret government evidence about UFOs and extraterrestrial life.
His case has become something of a cause celebre in Britain, where many see him as a misguided, eccentric but ultimately harmless computer nerd up against the might of a prosecution-happy American judicial system. Members of Parliament, civil liberties campaigners, lawyers and other activists have all championed his cause.
“It was an incredibly brave decision” not to hand McKinnon over to the U.S., said his mother, Janis Sharp, who has led the fight against his extradition. “To stand up to another nation as strong and powerful as America is rare.”
Sharp told reporters that she and her son wept upon hearing the British government’s decision.
Painfully shy, McKinnon has become a virtual recluse during the last few years and often lapses into what his mother describes as a zombie-like state, numbed by fear that he might be sent to the U.S.
First arrested in 2002 in London, he lost various court appeals against extradition before May’s intervention Tuesday.
“Mr. McKinnon is accused of serious crimes, but there is no doubt that he is seriously ill,” she told the House of Commons. “After careful consideration of all of the relevant material, I have concluded that Mr. McKinnon’s 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.”
The announcement drew a loud rumble of “Hear, hear!” from other members of Parliament.
May said British prosecutors would examine the possibility of trying McKinnon at home.
Legal commentators said it was the first time that the Home Office had intervened to block an extradition request that normally would have sailed through under a 2003 extradition treaty with Washington.
The treaty has come under fire recently in Britain by those who regard it as too heavily weighted in favor of the U.S. Critics say that the agreement was meant to expedite the extradition of suspected terrorists and major criminal figures but is now being used to go after much smaller fry.
May said the treaty was “broadly sound” and benefited both the U.S. and Britain. But she said British officials would look into setting up a mechanism to ensure that suspects be tried in Britain instead of abroad in instances where it better served “the interests of justice.”
Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this report.