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Analysis & Opinion

The long arm of U.S. law

16:57 29/04/2011
RIA Novosti senior correspondent Larissa Sayenko

Once in America, do as Americans do and abide by the law of the land. Otherwise you may find yourself behind bars. However, the case recently opened in New York against the Russian businessmen Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko shows that these days, a foreign national does not even need to set foot on U.S. soil to be accused of breaking (or conspiring to break) U.S. law.

Bout and Yaroshenko were detained outside the United States on conspiracy charges and are being held in a New York jail pending trial. The charges brought against the two men are based on conversations recorded during "sting" operations overseas, in countries including Romania, Denmark, Thailand, Ukraine and Liberia. If convicted, the detainees may face decades-long prison sentences. They have not sold drugs to, killed or committed any offence against a U.S. citizen, but nonetheless may have to serve time. Not for any actual wrongdoing, but for, in the eyes of the U.S. judiciary, having conspired to commit a crime. But words and deeds are worlds apart.

The conspiracy law enacted in the United States in 1996 was intended primarily to be used against gangsters who are notoriously hard to catch red-handed. It makes it possible to bring mafia ringleaders to court using evidence collected from tapped phone conversations.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, "sting" operations involving American undercover agents began to be carried out globally.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, Americans accounted for 56% of those charged in country in 2009 while the remaining 44% were foreign nationals.

What if other countries decide to follow suit and impose their own laws on the outside world? Under Belarus' Penal Code, for example, insulting the country's head of state carries a prison term of up to four years. But does this give the Belarusian KGB carte blanche to befriend American citizens in Moscow, for example, and engage them in defamatory conversations about President Alexander Lukashenko? Then are they free to clap them in irons and haul them back to Minsk for trial?

Does Iran, a country following Sharia law, have the right to execute U.S. gays for making advances to Moslem men anywhere on the planet?

The United States is the only democracy in the world that defines conspiracy as an agreement between two (or more) persons to engage in an unlawful or criminal act. The country's vast spy network operates globally, tracking down foreigners who may pose a threat to U.S. national interests. These two Russian businessmen detained on conspiracy charges are among the many victims of this powerful network.

American law-enforcement officials say their primary mission is to defend the country's security in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which left 3,000 people dead and prompted military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, has been quoted by The New York Times as saying that "as crime has gone global and national security threats are global, [...] the long arm of the law has to get even longer." Impressed by the growing scale of U.S. special services' "sting" operations, the newspaper described Mr. Bharara as a New York attorney with a global reach.

Increasing numbers of people in the United States are denouncing this as a witch hunt, raising doubts about its consistency with the country's democratic ideals, and whether it is, in reality, in its security and economic interests. Indeed, why should the United States create an international prison on its soil instead of just passing the evidence against foreign suspects to their respective countries of origin, for them to be tried there under their own laws? This is the approach most civilized states take.

In a report released earlier this month, the Pew Center on the States (an American non-government think tank) says that over the past 35 years, the number of prison inmates in the United States has increased by as much as 705% and that the annual budget to fund their incarceration has been raised to $52 billion.

The United Kingdom's extradition agreement with the United States came into force in 2005. London recently learned that the number of British suspects extradited to the United States since then is at least twice that of suspected American nationals handed over to Britain.

Eccentric British hacker Gary McKinnon's story sent shivers down the spines of many of his compatriots. In 2001 and 2002, he spent thirteen months apparently combing NASA and Pentagon files for data on UFO's and "little green men."

The UK government recognizes the extradition request issued by Washington for McKinnon as valid. Litigation over his handover has been running for five years now. The European Court on Human Rights is now his last hope. McKinnon may face up to 70 years in prison if extradited and convicted in the United States.

Russia and the United States have no mutual extradition agreement. Yet, the American news media are now pressing for the handover of Nikolai Rakossi, a murder suspect who fled to Russia in April to escape criminal prosecution in the United States. For some reason, people here in America seem convinced that Russians are soft on murderers.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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RIA NovostiThe long arm of U.S. law

16:57 29/04/2011 Once in America, do as Americans do and abide by the law of the land. Otherwise you may find yourself behind bars.>>

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  • norrispcorrection on the UK aspect
    02:51, 30/04/2011
    as far as the ratio of uk national extradited to the US (according to a freedom of information request to the home office) since 1st January 2004 only 3 us nationals have extradited to the UK whereas 28 UK nationals have been extradited to the US that is 9 times as many not twice and since the USA has more than 5 times the population that is per capita 50 times as many!!!
    Gary McKinnon's future at present is in the hands of the Home Secretary who is currently considering refusing his extradition. NASA and Pentagon computers did after all have no passwords set and no security a fact which Mr McKinnon pointed out to them in the many cyber-notes that he left.
  • qvisionCorrection
    14:00, 01/05/2011
    McKinnon has been in litigation for 9 years, not 5. He was first arrested in March 2002 and the legal battle started in November 2002. He was then rearrested in 2005.

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