Christmas. A time for family – full of memories, associations and, we hope, happiness. If we’re lucky. But this festive season, for Janis Sharp and her son Gary McKinnon, the memories and emotions will be ones of fear, anxiety and regret. This will be their 10th Christmas since the threat of extradition to a United States jail first hung over Gary’s head.
For anyone unfamiliar with the story, Gary suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. People with Asperger’s often have obsessions, and Gary, a brilliant computer whizz, was consumed with finding evidence of the existence of UFOs. To this end, he hacked into the intelligence networks of the US military and of Nasa in 2001.
After being interviewed by British police in March 2002, Gary was indicted by a federal grand jury in East Virginia that November on seven counts of computer crime, each count carrying a potential 10-year jail sentence.
He was technically free until June 2005 when, under the Extradition Act 2003, which enabled the US to extradite without providing evidence, extradition proceedings began.
The case has dragged on, with hopes raised and dashed many times, including the rejection of an appeal to the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights.
The case has dragged on, with hopes raised and dashed many times
This week a historic debate was heard in the House of Commons on the future of the extradition treaty. Reacting to news of the debate, Janis Sharp said: “I’m so pleased about the incredible achievement of a full debate being secured in parliament on the extradition treaty.
“The extradition debate in Westminster will restore my faith in our political system and and it is so good to see our politicians fighting so hard for the rights of British citizens.
“When good men and women stand together and fight for justice, it is a cause for celebration. We are so grateful to everyone involved and hope that Gary’s nightmare and the nightmare of others will soon be over.”
Recognition of Janis’ tireless battle to keep Gary in the UK came in November when she was presented with the Human Rights Award by Liberty. It was a righteous and timely award. While Gary has always admitted hacking into US systems, he denies the alleged damages. So why has it taken so long to give Gary a fair trial in his own country?
Unfortunately, and unfairly, it is now a very long story. I’ve known Janis for many years and have accompanied her on several meetings to campaign on behalf of her son. I caught up with her in London a few weeks ago to talk about where things are now, and what happens next.
The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.
This is the 10th Christmas you’ll spend with extradition hanging over Gary’s head. How does that feel?
I never look forward to Christmas. It’s horrendous every day, because Gary is always in mental torment, but it always seems worse at this time of year. At New Year we cry rather than celebrate, because we’re afraid of having to face yet another year like this.
What is life like for Gary day to day?
He is terrorised all the time. He spends his days in his room, curtains drawn. He’s not allowed to use a computer, which is what he loved. He’s very paranoid. The other day he heard someone speaking outside the house and panicked. He thought he heard them say it was a police matter. In fact it was someone wanting to read the gas meter. His cats keep him company, and a friend visits most days to make sure he’s okay. But he is severely depressed and I know he thinks about suicide.
That must be absolutely terrible for you as his mother.
It’s terrible, yes. That’s why I have to keep on fighting to keep him here. It’s all I think about, all I talk about.
Gary has Asperger’s. How is this related to his crime?
Truth is very important to people with Asperger’s – they always tell the truth, even to their own detriment, and Gary was just trying to find out the truth about UFOs. When he hacked into the US intelligence networks he left messages telling them their security was awful – he never even thought about hiding his identity. What he did was silly, but he hasn’t raped or murdered anyone. He wasn’t stealing or committing fraud. There was nothing he tried to gain – he was just being honest.
Gary was just trying to find out the truth about UFOs… he hasn’t raped or murdered anyone
Several people have supported you over the years and then changed their position, including the US ambassador Louis Susman. How have those setbacks affected Gary?
It was Sarah Brown who initially suggested we contact Louis Susman when you came with me to 10 Downing Street in 2009 to present the petition. She was really sympathetic. So we did and at first he seemed very nice. It actually came out on WikiLeaks that he’d said the extradition charge was very unpopular in Britain and that it would be better to do the right thing. But then in October he told The Scotsman newspaper the battle to save Gary was over. He said their whole computer system had been brought down and it made them very vulnerable. This was after the US-UK treaty review by Scott Baker, which said that the extradition legislation is fair. That review was a real setback too. When Gary heard about it, it completely shattered him. Before the General Election everyone had been saying it was biased and unfair, so he trusted the review to come to that conclusion. We felt very let down.
What about British politicians?
Under the last government, the opposition seemed very supportive. There was lots of objection to the US bias in the extradition treaty. Then David Cameron raised it in the very first internet press conference he held with President Obama. Obama looked surprised, as though he didn’t know it was going to come up, but it didn’t change much. Another year passed and Cameron brought it up again at a second conference, this time in Britain, and this time Obama said it’s a UK decision that America will accept and respect.
But then this year the US attorney general Eric Holder said they would continue to take all necessary steps to have Gary extradited and held accountable for “the crimes he has committed”. Did that shock you?
It was pretty shocking. What happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty’? Eric Holder basically said Gary was guilty without any trial ever taking place. He shouldn’t be able to get away with that.
There are other mothers who, like yourself, are waiting to see whether their sons will be extradited for cyber crimes committed in this country. Do you feel an affinity with them?
I feel for Richard O’Dwyer’s mum, Julia, so much [Richard, a 23-year-old student at Sheffield University, ran a website with links to other sites to download film and TV for free and is facing extradition to the US for copyright infringement]. Richard’s crime is not even a crime in this country.
Gary’s fate is in the hands of Home Secretary Theresa May – does this give you hope?
I’m worried the evidence of our doctor, who believes Gary should not be extradited because of his fragile mental health, might be suppressed, particularly as there’s another doctor the Home Office is using who has no experience of Asperger’s.
Can you see a future?
Sometimes I really wonder if we will we ever get the old Gary back. He’s so traumatised and afraid. But I’ll never stop campaigning. I’m an optimist. He’s not going, he just isn’t.
Follow Janis Sharp’s campaign on Twitter on #JanisSharp and #freeGary