LONDON -– In a case that has dogged Anglo-American relations for a decade, Britain announced Tuesday that it would not send a confessed computer hacker to the United States to face charges in connection with a spectacular break-in of the Pentagon's computer system and other sensitive networks around the time of the 9/11 attacks.
British Home Secretary Theresa May told lawmakers that Gary McKinnon, 46, would not be extradited to the U.S. because of his mental health problems, which include suicidal thoughts and Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. Shipping him out of the country for prosecution would breach McKinnon's human rights, even though he stands accused of "serious crimes," May said.
The politically fraught decision by Washington's closest ally is likely to rouse the ire of U.S. officials, who have sought McKinnon's extradition for years. They say that McKinnon's repeated hacking of U.S. military computers, which he admits, caused serious damage and sparked a network crash soon after the 9/11 attacks.
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, psychologically disturbed but ultimately harmless computer nerd up against the might of a prosecution-happy American judicial system.
McKinnon's case has also become emblematic of what many Britons, including a large number of lawmakers, regard as an Anglo-American extradition treaty that is too heavily weighted in favor of the U.S.
McKinnon had already lost various court appeals against extradition before May's intervention Tuesday. Her announcement in the House of Commons that McKinnon would remain in Britain drew a loud rumble of "Hear, hear!" from fellow members of Parliament.
"Mr. McKinnon is accused of serious crimes, but there is no doubt that he is seriously ill," May said. "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."
She added that British prosecutors would now examine the possibility of trying McKinnon in Britain.
Commentators said it was the first time that Britain's Office of Home Affairs had intervened to block an extradition request that would otherwise have gone ahead as a matter of course under the U.S.-British treaty.
-- Henry Chu
Photo: Confessed computer hacker Gary McKinnon outside Britain's High Court in London in 2009. Credit: Shaun Curry / AFP/Getty Images