Abandoned by British justice: Student faces 10 years in U.S. jail for setting up ‘illegal’ website (in a chilling echo of Gary McKinnon)
By Jack Doyle and James Slack Last updated at 11:11 AM on 14th January 2012
A British student faces up to a decade in a U.S. prison for actions which are not even a crime in the UK.
Campaigners say Richard O’Dwyer, 23, is being abandoned by his country in the same way as computer hacker Gary McKinnon.
Mr O’Dwyer is accused of listing places where films and TV programmes could be illegally downloaded, on a website he ran from his university bedroom in Sheffield.
Legal experts say this is not an offence under British law, and he did not download any of the entertainment himself.
Yet the ‘quiet and vulnerable’ son of a GP could spend ten years in a high-security American jail after he lost his fight against extradition yesterday.
The case has chilling similarities with the attempt by the U.S. to extradite Asperger’s sufferer Mr McKinnon, who hacked into Pentagon computers from his north London bedroom.
Instead of putting the men on trial in the country where their alleged offences took place, the British legal system is permitting them to be bundled on a plane to America.
Mr O’Dwyer’s mother Julia, a paediatric nurse from Chesterfield, wept outside Westminster magistrates’ court after a judge ruled there was no legal bar to sending her son for trial.
She said the ‘rotten’ U.S./UK extradition treaty needed ‘fixing fast’ and warned: ‘If they can come for Richard they can come for anyone.’
Her husband Dr Peter O’Dwyer said his son was ‘quiet, introverted and vulnerable’.
The retired family doctor said he feared the ordeal of being sent to the U.S. could damage his son’s emotional health.
The couple say Mr O’Dwyer, who is studying software programming at Sheffield Hallam university, is being used as a ‘guinea pig’ as no one has ever been extradited on similar charges.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency wants to prosecute him on two counts of breaching copyright, each carrying a maximum five-year sentence.
The court heard that his website, TVShack.net, was earning £15,000 a month from advertising revenue.
Mr O’Dwyer was arrested in November 2010 when police and U.S. officials turned up at his hall of residence. He pulled the plug on the site immediately.
His lawyer Ben Cooper argued that it did not store copyright material itself and merely pointed users to other sites, in the same way that Google and Yahoo operate.
But District Judge Quentin Purdy said the extradition could go ahead, saying there were ‘said to be direct consequences of criminal activity by Richard O’Dwyer in the U.S. albeit by him never leaving the North of England’.
Mrs May is currently considering a review into the extradition laws by retired judge Sir Scott Baker. She is also examining new medical evidence that Mr McKinnon should remain in Britain.
His mother, Janis Sharp, told the Mail: ‘It breaks my heart to see British judges destroying the lives of yet another British family by essentially betraying their own citizens.
‘Extradition was meant to bring murderers and terrorists back to the country where they had committed a heinous crime. It was never meant to be used for cases such as Richard O’Dwyer or my son who were in the UK at all times.’
Julia O’Dwyer added that the treaty had ‘opened the floodgates to America to come and seize British citizens without even having set foot out of this country.
‘David Cameron and Nick Clegg both promised to sort out the extradition mess before the election. They need to pull their fingers out.
‘There are no safeguards here for British citizens. I am disgusted at the court’s decision. How can the U.S. government be allowed to ruin a young student’s life when similar cases brought in English courts show that what they allege is not illegal here?’
The huge controversy over yesterday’s verdict will heighten demands for the UK’s extradition laws to be changed.
MPs have demanded that the Government should insist a person must normally be tried in the country where the offence took place.
They also want urgent reform to the lopsided 2003 Extradition Act – which gives far greater protection to Americans than it does to their British counterparts.
The U.S. requires ‘sufficient evidence to establish probable cause’ before agreeing to extradite anyone to the UK, while Britons going in the opposite direction are not afforded the same protection.
Since 2004, 29 UK nationals or dual nationals have been extradited from Britain to the U.S. Only five Americans were extradited from the U.S. to Britain.
The U.S. Embassy has been fiercely resisting any change.
But, in December, a debate calling for action was unanimously passed by MPs at Westminster. They are backed by the Mail’s Affront to Justice campaign, which calls for Mr McKinnon to be tried in the UK.
Tory MP Dominic Raab, who led the campaign for a vote in Parliament on Britain’s extradition arrangements, said the O’Dwyer case ‘makes a mockery of British justice’.
He added: ‘A young student accused of internet offences that are not even crimes in Britain is being treated like a mafia boss.’
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: ‘This climate of uncertainty should not be allowed to persist and I hope the Home Secretary will act soon to clarify the Government’s position on extradition.’