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UK 'must help Enron-case bankers'

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LONDON, England -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair is being urged to cancel the extradition to the United States of three former NatWest bankers accused on Enron-related fraud charges.

A decision by the European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday to reject a final appeal by the men has been greeted with dismay by the business community.

David Bermingham, Gary Mulgrew and Giles Darby maintain their innocence but could face up to 23 years in prison if convicted of fraud, in connection with a deal they worked on with energy trader Enron in 2000.

The case has prompted criticism over the use of extradition laws as the U.S. is not required to provide solid evidence of wrongdoing to extradite a UK citizen.

Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, urged Blair to intervene on Wednesday and "defend the human rights of British citizens that are being abused by a country which is supposedly our greatest ally," the Press Association reported.

He said there was no prima facie case against the men and they represented no threat to society.

"Yet they will still be banged up in a U.S. prison with rapists and drug addicts, deprived of their liberty for up to two years even while a case is compiled against them," Jones said.

Speaking on CNN, Jones added: "These men should be on bail. The Americans are not treating them fairly."

The case brought by the men in the European Court of Rights -- which had previously been rejected by the British High Court and the House of Lords -- centered on a challenge to the legal status of Britain's fast-track extradition treaty with the U.S., which was introduced as part of the war against terrorism.

The trio, all UK citizens, are accused of defrauding Greenwich NatWest, a subsidiary of British parent company NatWest, of $7.3 million (£4.2 million).

The alleged offenses came to light after the collapse of the U.S. energy company Enron, and prompted the U.S. government to issue extradition requests in February 2004.

Lawyers for the four bankers have fought extradition on two fronts. Firstly, they argued the UK's Serious Fraud Office, not the Americans, should investigate the case -- and any trial should take place in the UK.

Secondly, they said the charges were not extradition offenses and that forcing the bankers to stand trial in the U.S. would be unjust and incompatible with European and British human rights law.

Washington fought back by pointing out that, even though the harmful effects of the alleged illegal conduct were intended to be felt by a company incorporated in the UK, part of the fraud occurred in the U.S.

The U.S. government's legal team described it as a classic trans-national crime, with some of the conduct occurring in the UK, some in the U.S. and some in the Cayman Islands tax haven.

Enron founder Kenneth Lay and former chief executive Jeffrey Skilling were found guilty last month in Houston, Texas, of fraud and conspiracy in one of the biggest business scandals in U.S. history -- a case that sent shock waves through corporate boardrooms worldwide. (Full story)

A jury on Thursday convicted the former executives of misleading the public about the true financial health of Enron, whose collapse in late 2001 symbolized the wave of corporate fraud that swept the United States early this decade.

Both Lay and Skilling could face 20 to 30 years in prison, legal experts say. Sentencing was set for September 11.

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