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Last Updated: Friday, 21 July 2006, 08:53 GMT 09:53 UK
NatWest Three 'to get fair trial'
by James Westhead
BBC Washington correspondent

Gary Mulgrew
The NatWest Three: Gary Mulgrew (l), David Bermingham, Giles Darby
The US government has rejected criticism of its extradition of three British bankers accused of fraud and promised they will have a "fair trial".

The NatWest Three will appear in court in Houston, Texas, later on Friday for a bail hearing to decide if they can return to England pending a full trial.

And a US spokesman has defended the controversial extradition treaty under which they were brought to Texas.

It is the first official response to the UK political row over the move.

'In UK interests'

The US State Department's chief legal adviser, John Bellinger, told the BBC that British concerns about the treaty were misplaced.

"This image of the US not being committed to a system of laws is troubling... it is very important for the British people to understand that an extradition treaty like this is very much in their interests," he said.

While the procedures are different in different countries, the legal standard of evidence required for extradition is the same
John Bellinger, US State Department

The three men - David Bermingham, Gary Mulgrew and Giles Darby - have been indicted on fraud charges by federal prosecutors in Texas because of a scheme involving the bankrupt US energy company, Enron.

The FBI says the three cheated Greenwich NatWest - an arm of NatWest - out of about $7m (3.8m).

The three say they are innocent. They were extradited last week under a new fast-track system agreed by the British government, and face up to 35 years in prison.

'Disappointing'

Critics - including human rights groups - claim the system is unfair, removing crucial legal rights and protections from British nationals.

Under the new rules, the US is no longer required to provide prima facie evidence in court when seeking to extradite suspects from Britain, while the UK still has to prove its case in court to extradite US citizens to the UK.

The treaty is in the interests of both countries because it will modernise extradition arrangements that can allow criminals to escape justice
John Bellinger, US State Department

Business leaders have also complained that while the new treaty was originally supposed to help combat terrorism, the US authorities have mostly used it to target white collar suspects.

However, Mr Bellinger rejected the suggestion that the system was lopsided.

"While the procedures are different in different countries, the legal standard of evidence required for extradition is the same," he said.

The UK government has also complained that since the treaty was signed three years ago by Britain, it is still not binding on the US as the US Senate has failed to ratify it into law.

"To be frank it is disappointing to us that the Senate has not moved more rapidly... we're working very hard to have it ratified but this is not something that is in the power of the administration alone," said Mr Bellinger.

'Modernising arrangements'

The process of ratification does finally get under way on Friday with the Senate Foreign Relations committee holding a hearing on the treaty.

However, it must be agreed by two-thirds of the whole Senate to pass into law.

Mr Bellinger stressed: "This is a top and urgent priority for the administration. The treaty is in the interests of both countries because it will modernise extradition arrangements that can allow criminals to escape justice."

Meanwhile, the NatWest Three - who have spent the last week in hotels in Houston - are appearing in court today.

They hope to persuade the judge to allow them to return to the UK to prepare their defence.

Their supporters claim bail terms that required them to stay in the US would be too onerous and hamper their ability to adequately defend themselves.




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A US government spokesman speaks out on the trial



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