US prosecutors going after British hackers are proving that justice in the West is no fairer than anywhere else in the world

Have you seen Midnight Express? Based on true story, it’s about a young American who gets nicked for trying to smuggle a load of hashish out of Turkey. He ends up getting stuck in a hellhole of a prison in Istanbul. During his incarceration he is subjected to beatings, sexual assaults, squalid living conditions and xenophobic bullying.

Midway through the film, the young protagonist, Billy, unleashes a desperate rant in a Turkish courtroom. After a fleeting promise of early release, he is about to have his sentence extended to life imprisonment. At this point he has nothing left to lose.

Billy’s tirade against his captors is racist and vitriolic. He has come to despise Turkey — all its people, all its customs — for the undue punishment it has dished out to him. Before shouting that all Turks are pigs, he tells them they do not know the meaning of the word ‘mercy’. He goes on. “The concept of a society is based on the quality of that mercy… its sense of fair play… its sense of justice. But I guess that’s like asking a bear to shit in the woods.”

Billy is implying that Turkey is backwards. That it is populated and governed by savages. He is convinced that in the USA, and other Western nations, criminals are punished proportionally to their crimes. Billy believes that, had he been convicted of a similar crime in the USA, he would have been shown mercy. He would have served perhaps a few years of jail time before returning to society, his lesson well-learned.

Midnight Express is an orientalist, perhaps even racist, film which portrays Turkey and its people incredibly unkindly. However, Billy’s feeling of of moral superiority is something many of us are guilty of. It’s difficult not to read about some hapless tourist getting banged up for ten years in Thailand for marijuana possession without thinking, “Thank God we’re sensible in this country. If I get caught with a small quantity of drugs, the most I’m gonna get is a few hours of community service.”

But imagine you are convicted of a different crime. Hacking into US government websites, for example. No-one dies. No one is hurt — physically at least. The Yanks are claiming that you have caused ‘millions of dollars worth of damage’, so you probably should face some sort of punishment. The predicted sentence you face? 99 years.

This seems the likely — and obscenely unjust — fate of Lauri Love. Today, the Home Office approved his extradition order to America. If 31 year-old Love, who suffers from Asperger’s and depression, is ultimately taken to the US to stand trial, he may well never come home.

Now you might say that this man has put the safety of millions in jeopardy by stealing data from (among others) the US Department of Defense, NASA and the FBI. It’s only right that he spend the rest of his life behind bars! What still makes our justice system fairer and more merciful than others’ is the civil liberties we bestow upon our prisoners. Even if he is serves every one of those 99 years, you can rest assured that Lauri Love will be in a clean, modern prison, with no fear of ill-treatment or any kind of violation of his human rights.

Wrong.

Every bad thing that happens to Billy in Midnight Express — a film set in a Turkish prison in the 1970s — happens in American correctional facilities today. Men have been held in Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade without trial. Hundreds of thousands of rapes occur in US prisons every year. In 2016, an inmate died of thirst in a Milwaukee jail after staff neglected to give him water for six days.

The authorities come down hard on hackers because they are scared. The advent of the internet has left them exposed. Traditional ways of protecting government secrets are now redundant. In the good old days, all your most sensitive data was on a piece of microfilm which you could lock in a big, steel vault in an underground military complex. You could bolster these defences with an army of fearsome security guards, armed to the teeth with machine guns and macho nicknames like ‘Spike’ and ‘Buzz’.

In this new digital age, Spike and Buzz are no match for nerdy teenagers, who can reach over the Atlantic to pilfer classified information as easily as they would grab an OJ carton from the fridge. You can see why, once they’ve caught one of the little brats, the establishment might want to make an example out of him.

But mercy must not be forgotten. If we leave young offenders with no hope, no chance of redemption, we risk alienating not just those young criminals, but the entire generation that spawned them. Youngsters must believe that their society values fairness. If they don’t, why should they bother engaging with it?

It is not too late for the British government to step in on Lauri Love’s behalf. In 2012, Theresa May saw reason and blocked the extradition of Gary Mckinnon, a hacker accused of similar crimes to Love’s. Her justification? “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.” Let’s hope our new Home Secretary is brave enough to follow May’s example.

People these days are so distrustful of the system that they voted for Brexit and Donald Trump. The first step towards rebuilding that trust could be to show some leniency to a kid who made a mistake.