European Court Says Britain Can Send Terror Suspects to U.S.

In a major precedent that appeared likely to greatly ease extradition of Britain’s terrorism suspects, an issue that has surfaced repeatedly over the last decade, the court ruled that the human rights of the defendants would not be violated by their prospective captivity in a maximum security American prison. All face the possibility of life sentences without parole.

The decision was a defeat for human rights advocates, one that some legal experts called stunning, considering the court’s history of wariness toward the human rights standards of the American justice system.

When transfers of the five men might take place is uncertain. The European Court, based in Strasbourg, France, allows litigants three months to seek one last hearing from the court’s Grand Chamber. But legal experts said it was far from sure that the court would accept a further appeal, and Theresa May, the British home secretary, said the government would move “as soon as possible” on extraditing the men once the last legal steps had been completed.

Britain has struggled to balance civil liberties and domestic security in the face of entrenched Islamic extremism and repeated terrorist attacks, and has sought to deport some of the dozens of suspects it has detained in scores of possible plots over a decade.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed the European Court’s ruling. “It is quite right that we have proper legal processes, although sometimes one can get frustrated with how long they take,” the Press Association news agency quoted Mr. Cameron as saying in Japan, where he was leading a trade delegation.

The outcome contrasted sharply with a ruling by the same European Court in January that another radical Islamic preacher, Abu Qatada, regarded as one of Al Qaeda’s main inspirational leaders in Europe, could not be extradited from Britain to his native Jordan. The court said any trial there would be tainted by evidence obtained from another person by torture. The preacher, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, was released on strict bail terms in February.

Mr. Cameron, reacting to the Abu Qatada case, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, troubled by similar cases there, have demanded that the court end its interference in issues that they have said affect their nations’ national security, and they have threatened to take steps to curb the court’s powers. Some legal experts cited those warnings to help explain Tuesday’s decision.

The ruling played into a tangled debate in Britain over the more flexible extradition treaty it signed with the United States after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That pact is widely perceived here as giving American prosecutors overly broad powers to demand the extradition of British suspects whose crimes were not committed on American soil. Politicians from all major parties have campaigned for suspects in offenses committed on British soil to be prosecuted in Britain.

The latest ruling “still leaves open the case of whether the U.S. is the right place to try all of these suspects,” said Sarah Ludford, a spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrats, who are junior partners in Mr. Cameron’s coalition government, arguing that those “whose alleged crimes were perpetrated from their computers at home in Britain should face homegrown justice.”

The suspects had all objected to being incarcerated at a “supermax” prison in Florence, Colo., on the grounds that conditions there infringed on their human rights. Such conditions include concrete furniture, timed showers, tiny cell windows and sharply restricted communications with the outside world, including family members.

But the judges found that conditions did not breach European laws prohibiting “inhuman and degrading treatment,” concluding that inmates, “although confined to their cells for the vast majority of their time,” were provided with “services and activities (television, radio, newspapers, books, hobby and craft items, telephone calls, social visits, correspondence with families, group prayer) which went beyond what was provided in most prisons in Europe.”

Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington and Benjamin Weiser from New York.

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