When I first wrote about Chris Tappin for Forbes.com, I had no idea how big of a story this was in the U.K., because it is not a big story at all here in the States. Mr. Tappin, a U.K. citizen, is 65 years old and a retired businessman who was in the shipping (parcel) import/export business. Tappin was indicted in 2007, along with two others, for attempting to send batteries to Iran that could be used for Hawk (surface to air) missles. The trio were caught in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement sting in El Paso, TX where undercover agents set up a bogus company through which to move illegal goods. Tappin claims he did not know that the batteries were for missiles. One of the men (U.K. citizen) involved had already pled guilty and was sentenced to 24 months....another (U.S. citizen) took his case to trial and lost, he got 20 months. Tappin remained in the U.K. and the U.S. started asking for him to be extradited in 2010 to the States to face charges. Over the past few weeks, Tappin exhausted all appeals to block the extradition and U.S. Marshals met him in London to escort him to prison in the U.S. as he awaits a bail hearing.
At issue is whether U.K. citizens are being treated as fairly in these extradition cases as U.S. citizens are afforded in England. The burden to indict someone for a crime, even a serious crime, is quite low here in the U.S. In the Tom Wolfe novel, Bon Fire of The Vanities, it was said that "...a U.S. prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich." In fact, the saying is often used by defense lawyers to downplay the indictment and arrest of their client. Grand juries are convened to hear evidence by prosecutors who are seeking to arrest persons charged with federal crimes against the United States. During these proceedings, prosecutors present evidence and witnesses that support their case to bring charges.....what is missing is a perspective from someone representing the accused, a defense. Where as this might be common for the U.S., it is not for Brits who are angered that such a low barrier to arrest is permitted to take one of their citizens into custody.
In the U.S. a person is considered innocent until proven guilty, though with perp walks and publicized arrests it does seem difficult to get a fair trial. Even in indictment press releases by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), they have some standard language at the bottom of the release that says, "The charges contained in the complaint are merely accusations and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty." Hardly comforting when one is pulled 3,000 miles from home and incarcerated in a county jail in El Paso.
Tappin has other challenges. Who is going to come and testify on his behalf? Tappin claims that those who could defend him would not dare travel to the U.S. from England and testify for fear of being arrested themselves. How about a video testimony? Not allowed in this case.
The amount of money involved in the case is a whopping $15,000 in a bogus battery deal for missles that the U.S. gave Iran years ago....when we liked them. I'm not saying that what Tappin did was legal, or illegal....we don't know. What I am saying is whether this case is worth testing the extradition laws between two close allies? The charges would probably be dropped here in the States if this case got any attention....but one cannot find any information on it...save one blogger at Forbes.com. Further, arrests and incarceration of low level white-collar crimes are so common place here that they barely make the news two days in a row.
While we wait, Tappin is awaiting a bail hearing in El Paso, TX. If bail is denied, he could sit in prison for months preparing for a trial....or he could just plead guilty, as 90% of those accused at the federal level do, and get a few years in prison. Tappin would not be eligible for a prison camp, he being a non-U.S. citizen, so he would do his time in a prison with a fence and higher level security inmates.
The BBC had me on radio and television to talk about how the case is viewed here in America....no action yet, but the Brits are watching closely, and here in the U.S. we should pay attention as well.