Presiding over the profound and the petty at UK court

Presiding over the profound and the petty at UK court

LONDON – Haroon Rashid Aswat, wanted by the United States for plotting to set up a militant training camp, is due in the dock.

But first there is the matter of one Richard Curtis, of no fixed abode, who pleads guilty to begging. Judge Timothy Workman gives Curtis a £20 (about N$230) fine and stern advice to “get some help soon”.One of the quirks of the English legal system is that extradition cases, however important, are decided at the lowest level of the court system – magistrates’ courts normally responsible for trying petty crimes.A typical day at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, attached to a police station opposite the Covent Garden opera house in central London’s theatre district, involves a parade of disorderly drunks, prostitutes and drug dealers.The court can hand down fines of up to 5 000 pounds or sentences of up to six months.Anything bigger is normally passed up the chain to the Crown Court.But especially since the September 11 2001 attacks, Bow Street has also handled a flood of extradition cases that have made headlines around the world, deciding some of the most hotly disputed legal issues.The result is often a strange mix of the petty and the profound: the world’s media gathers for front-page news, but is first served up a slice of the seedier side of London life.All handled by unflappable Judge Workman.ANGER AT HOME AND ABROAD Workman’s rulings can make Bow Street a target of fury at home and abroad.In 2003, he denied Russia’s request to extradite Chechen rebel leader Akhmed Zakayev for 13 crimes including kidnapping and murder.In a scathing 12-page ruling, Workman determined that Moscow had tortured witnesses to gather evidence against Zakayev and there was a substantial risk Zakayev would be tortured himself.He also ruled that the conflict in Chechnya was a war and not a civil disturbance, and therefore killing enemies on the battlefield was not murder.After the ruling, Moscow accused Britain of “giving shelter to terrorists on its territory”.Last May, Workman ruled that British computer expert Babar Ahmad could be sent to the United States to face charges of funding Islamic militants, after the US embassy promised he would not be sent to Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba.Demonstrators rallied outside the courtroom and the head of the Muslim Council of Britain called Workman’s ruling “a sad day for all who value fairness and justice”.”The US can now simply order that British citizens can be plucked from our streets and into US jails by making serious and wholly unproven allegations against them,” Iqbal Sacranie said.PETTY AND PROFOUND Normally, cases in magistrates’ courts are heard by panels of England’s 30 000 part-time volunteer justices of the peace, who are not required to have any formal legal background.But there are also about 100 full-time professional district judges working in magistrates’ courts, and the most senior is Workman, who therefore gets the country’s top extradition cases mixed into his usual docket of petty crimes and misdemeanours.”He’ll do his fair share of ordinary cases because that is the nature of the job.But if there are any complex cases he’ll hear them,” a court service spokesman explained.Reporters from around the world who packed into the court’s gallery for the extradition of a terrorism suspect a few weeks ago first watched Workman rule on the case of a man who scratched someone’s luxury car with his keys.In 2003, Workman denied bail to Iran’s former ambassador to Argentina, who was wanted by Buenos Aires in connection with a 1994 attack on a Jewish centre that killed 85 people.In response to Workman’s decision, Iranian radio declared: “A new plot is being hatched against Iran by the triangle of America, Britain and Israel with the co-operation of Argentina.”Britain later dropped the case for lack of evidence.Appearing just moments before the Iranian ex-ambassador in 2003 was a homeless man with no legs who had been summoned for abusive behaviour and for lashing out at passers-by with a metal rod.He had faced Workman before.A prosecutor read out a list of the obscenities the man had shouted at police.Workman ordered him released and the metal rod destroyed.And he advised him to do his best not to return.- Nampa-ReutersJudge Timothy Workman gives Curtis a £20 (about N$230) fine and stern advice to “get some help soon”.One of the quirks of the English legal system is that extradition cases, however important, are decided at the lowest level of the court system – magistrates’ courts normally responsible for trying petty crimes.A typical day at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, attached to a police station opposite the Covent Garden opera house in central London’s theatre district, involves a parade of disorderly drunks, prostitutes and drug dealers.The court can hand down fines of up to 5 000 pounds or sentences of up to six months.Anything bigger is normally passed up the chain to the Crown Court.But especially since the September 11 2001 attacks, Bow Street has also handled a flood of extradition cases that have made headlines around the world, deciding some of the most hotly disputed legal issues.The result is often a strange mix of the petty and the profound: the world’s media gathers for front-page news, but is first served up a slice of the seedier side of London life.All handled by unflappable Judge Workman.ANGER AT HOME AND ABROAD Workman’s rulings can make Bow Street a target of fury at home and abroad.In 2003, he denied Russia’s request to extradite Chechen rebel leader Akhmed Zakayev for 13 crimes including kidnapping and murder.In a scathing 12-page ruling, Workman determined that Moscow had tortured witnesses to gather evidence against Zakayev and there was a substantial risk Zakayev would be tortured himself.He also ruled that the conflict in Chechnya was a war and not a civil disturbance, and therefore killing enemies on the battlefield was not murder.After the ruling, Moscow accused Britain of “giving shelter to terrorists on its territory”.Last May, Workman ruled that British computer expert Babar Ahmad could be sent to the United States to face charges of funding Islamic militants, after the US embassy promised he would not be sent to Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba.Demonstrators rallied outside the courtroom and the head of the Muslim Council of Britain called Workman’s ruling “a sad day for all who value fairness and justice”.”The US can now simply order that British citizens can be plucked from our streets and into US jails by making serious and wholly unproven allegations against them,” Iqbal Sacranie said.PETTY AND PROFOUND Normally, cases in magistrates’ courts are heard by panels of England’s 30 000 part-time volunteer justices of the peace, who are not required to have any formal legal background.But there are also about 100 full-time professional district judges working in magistrates’ courts, and the most senior is Workman, who therefore gets the country’s top extradition cases mixed into his usual docket of petty crimes and misdemeanours.”He’ll do his fair share of ordinary cases because that is the nature of the job.But if there are any complex cases he’ll hear them,” a court service spokesman explained.Reporters from around the world who packed into the court’s gallery for the extradition of a terrorism suspect a few weeks ago first watched Workman rule on the case of a man who scratched someone’s luxury car with his keys.In 2003, Workman denied bail to Iran’s former ambassador to Argentina, who was wanted by Buenos Aires in connection with a 1994 attack on a Jewish centre that killed 85 people.In response to Workman’s decision, Iranian radio declared: “A new plot is being hatched against Iran by the triangle of America, Britain and Israel with the co-operation of Argentina.”Britain later dropped the case for lack of evidence.Appearing just moments before the Iranian ex-ambassador in 2003 was a homeless man with no legs who had been summoned for abusive behaviour and for lashing out at passers-by with a metal rod.He had faced Workman before.A prosecutor read out a list of the obscenities the man ha
d shouted at police.Workman ordered him released and the metal rod destroyed.And he advised him to do his best not to return.- Nampa-Reuters

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