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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 November 2007, 11:06 GMT
Q&A: The NatWest Three
(L-R) Giles Darby, David Bermingham and Gary Mulgrew
The men hope to serve their sentence in the UK

Three British bankers extradited to the US on charges linked to the Enron fraud case after have pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud.

They each look set to face a 37-month jail sentence - the latest development in a five-year trans-Atlantic fraud case.

What is happening in the US?

David Bermingham, 44, Gary Mulgrew, 45, and Giles Darby, 44, have admitted one charge of wire fraud after a plea bargain.

The three men were originally scheduled to go on trial in January, but entered their pleas at a hearing before US district judge Ewing Werlein.

Sentencing is set to take place on 22 February and if the judge approves the deal, the NatWest Three are set to face a 37-month jail sentence.

The three had previously said they were innocent of all seven charges that they faced. If found guilty of the seven charges, they would have faced up to 35 years in jail.

What have they admitted?

The trio have pleaded guilty to conspiring with former Enron staff to defraud NatWest of $19m (9m) and then splitting $7m between them.

The men they conspired with - Andrew Fastow and Michael Kopper - are already in jail.

Is jail their only punishment? And where will they serve their sentence?

As part of the plea bargain, they are to pay $7.35m to the Royal Bank of Scotland, which now owns NatWest.

The men hope that they will be able to serve what ever period in detention they must serve in the UK.

While they are theoretically facing a 37 month jail term, observers say it is unlikely that they will actually be in custody for that period of time.

It is possible that the time they have been on bail - unable to leave the US - will be deducted from their sentence.

What is the background to the case?

The men used to work for a subsidiary of NatWest Bank.

In 2002, US prosecutors issued arrest warrants for the three men, accusing them of conspiring to defraud their employers and investors in collapsed US energy giant Enron.

US prosecutors alleged that the three bankers were involved in a fraud in which their employer, Greenwich NatWest, was advised to sell off its stake in an Enron unit at well below its market value.

They then left the bank and purchased a $250,000 stake in the unit - which they sold on at a much higher price, making a profit of $7.3m.

Initially the three denied any wrongdoing.

But the US alleged that they conspired with Enron ex-chief financial officer Andrew Fastow - now serving a 10-year sentence - and ex-global finance boss Michael Kopper in the sale.

The three exhausted almost every legal avenue during their two-year battle against extradition.

Why did the extradition process provoke such controversy?

The three men were at the centre of a fierce political row over UK-US extradition laws.

They were extradited to the US and put on a flight to Houston despite widespread claims that the process used to do so is unfair and they should be tried in the UK.

The three faced extradition under the terms of a treaty drawn up by the two countries in 2003.

Although the treaty has not yet been formally ratified, its main elements were enshrined into British law through the Extradition Act, made law in late 2003.

NATWEST THREE TIMELINE
2002: US prosecutors issue arrest warrants for the three men, in connection with suspected fraud
October 2004: A judge rules that the three can be extradited to the US to face charges
May 2005: After a judicial review, Charles Clarke says the extradition should go ahead
February 2006: The High Court upholds the extradition decision on appeal
July 2006: The Attorney General rejects calls for the case to be tried in the UK
November 2007: Three plead guilty to one count of wire fraud

This legislation was designed to modernise and speed up the UK's extradition system, making it easier to deal with those suspected of cross-border offences such as terrorism and organised crime.

Critics - including business leaders and civil liberties groups - claim the law as it stands is unbalanced and gives British nationals far less legal protection than people in other countries.

How does the US system differ from the UK's?

Under the terms of the 2003 Act, the US authorities need to outline the alleged offence, and provide "evidence or information that would justify the issue of a warrant for arrest in the UK".

For its part, Britain must provide the US with evidence of "probable cause" if it wishes to extradite someone from America.

Probable cause, which is a phrase used in the US Constitution's fourth amendment concerning search and seizure, has been defined as "information sufficient to warrant a prudent person's belief that the wanted individual had committed a crime."

It includes such element as identification and a reasonable belief that a crime has been committed. It is a stronger standard than "reasonable suspicion".

The UK government argues that the burden of evidence required in both systems is comparable: that the police must reasonably believe that a crime has been committed and an individual is suspected of that crime.

But opposition politicians say the laws are not reciprocal and want them to be changed.

Is the current extradition law final?

The law was agreed by Parliament but even this is a subject of dispute.

Critics claim that a decision to designate the US as one of more than 20 non-EU countries where prima facie evidence was not required was not voted on - but the government said the issue was fully debated.

There is also concern that the extradition treaty has yet to be ratified by the US Congress, more than two years after it was agreed.

Two thirds of senators need to support the treaty for it to be passed.

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