"in a time of universal deceit, speaking the truth becomes a rebellious act"








Saving Gary McKinnon: A Mother's Story by Janis Sharp

The remarkable story of the woman who took on the courts to save her hacker son from extradition and jail in America. Review by Sian Griffiths

Published: 15 September 2013

Janis Sharp: 'I was not going to fail in my duty as a parent' (Shaun Curry)

In the worst moments of the 11-year campaign she waged to save her only son, Gary McKinnon, from extradition to America, Janis Sharp had visions of physically picking him up and whisking him to safety. She thought about hijacking the prison van transporting him to a bail hearing; she dreamt of "bundling her family into the car and heading for the hills"; and she had "a desperate urge to just grab him and take him back to Glasgow, the town of his birth, for safety".

The family's ordeal finally came to an end in October 2012 when Theresa May, the home secretary, blocked attempts by the American authorities to extradite McKinnon. Soon afterwards, the police in the UK decided that he would not stand trial over here either. By then there could have been few Britons who did not know the name of the 46-year-old Asperger's sufferer from north London, who faced up to 60 years behind bars for hacking into Pentagon and Nasa computers looking for evidence of UFOs.

McKinnon had left geeky messages on administrators' desktops, such as "I am Solo" and "I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels." One American prosecutor had warned that he would "fry" for embarrassing the world's superpower in the wake of 9/11.

This memoir is the inside story of the global campaign orchestrated by Sharp, a working-class woman from Glasgow, to save her son from prison in America. Celebrities were enlisted, including the actress Trudi Styler and her pop-star husband Sting, plus Julie Christie, the singers Bob Geldof and Chrissie Hynde and the novelist Polly Samson. The Daily Mail launched "An Affront to British Justice" drive to keep McKinnon in Britain. Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross were among the thousands who sported "Free Gary" twibbons on their Twitter avatars. As Sharp puts it: "I was not going to fail in my duty as a parent." She even sold the family home to fund the campaign.

The strain often told. Even as she battled the courts and the officials, her son went to pieces. Diagnosed with Asperger's after being threatened with extradition, McKinnon became a very real suicide risk, who rarely left the sanctuary of home. At one point he told her: "I'm walking and suddenly I can't control my legs, and I'm sitting up all night thinking about maniacs wanting to have me dragged and locked up in some godforsaken American prison, where I'd be attacked and raped and disconnected from my home and family, and I think about the cruelty in the world, mostly for monetary gain, and I think... I don't belong in this world."

Sharp settles several scores in her book: Alan Johnson, then Labour home secretary, fares particularly badly. Not only did the former postman turned cabinet minister approve Gary's extradition to America, he was also reluctant even to shake Sharp's hand properly, she claims, when she met him to plead her son's cause. She reserves her plaudits instead for the Tories, and in particular May, whose final judgment kept McKinnon in Britain.

One of the most surprising aspects of Sharp's story is that, even as she campaigned for her son, she and her partner Wilson were also working as foster parents. At a crucial point in McKinnon's case, the couple agreed to foster two small children. Called away one evening on campaign business, Sharp left the two for a few hours with some friends. There was no question that they weren't safe and well looked after, but nonetheless, for breaking official guidelines, the children had to be removed.

Sharp remains furious about this incident and at several points in the book gives vent to her views on the convoluted and bureaucratic fostering system, which seems to her almost as unjust as the extradition treaty she was battling. Exhausted from the 11-year fight to save McKinnon, though, it seems unlikely that she will now do public battle with the secretive family courts and the absurdities of the world of social work.

Admirable though Sharp is, this book is undoubtedly too convoluted at times, as it details the minutiae of the legal and political battle against extradition. Sharp's frequently expressed belief that her dreams foretell the future can also be irritating. Nonetheless, it is impossible not to be touched by her determination to convince the system to take notice of the little people who so often get lost in it. As Christie writes in the brief foreword: Bravo Janis!

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"The inside story of one of the great political, legal and human dramas of the last decade ...a remarkable story told by a remarkable woman." - Duncan Campbell, The Guardian
"A compelling read!....Janis Sharp fought every single day for her son Gary McKinnon's freedom, knowing that without her stamina, determination and most of all her boundless love, Gary would have been at the mercy of a US government who wanted to make an example of him. Janis has all my admiration and respect, not only as a mother but as a tireless campaigner against an unjust law. The day Gary was liberated of the terrifying fear of extradition was a great day not just for him and his family, but for all of us - a day when justice, compassion and human decency prevailed." - Trudie Styler
"A great read" - Anita Sumner