Whatever happened to the British businessman arrested and sent to prison in the US before standing trial? In the first interview since his release last month, Tappin tells his extraordinary story to Martin Fletcher
Chris Tappin looks a little thinner and older than he did when I first interviewed him two and a half years ago, but otherwise not much different. We talk in the same spacious living room where we sat on that occasion, its french windows overlooking a manicured lawn and swimming pool. The same air of affluent, middle-class English orderliness pervades his sizeable home in a gated estate in Orpington, Kent – an orderliness that has proved utterly illusory.
The bulge beneath Tappin’s left sock bears witness to that. An electronic ankle bracelet that allows the probation service to monitor his movements, it is the only obvious reminder of the Kafkaesque horrors that the retired, silver-haired businessman has endured since our initial meeting.
Days after that first interview Tappin’s life unravelled. A father and grandfather, former head of the Kent Golf Union – he counts Nigel Farage as an old golfing buddy – and successful businessman, he was extradited to America on charges of selling prohibited defence equipment to Iran. He was convicted in Texas without the evidence against him being tested in a court of law. He was incarcerated in a series of US prisons and compelled to spend a small fortune on legal fees.
Tappin, 67, was finally repatriated last September, and released under licence in May. In his first interview since his ordeal ended, he still protests his innocence, and burns with a sense of injustice and betrayal. “I am angry,” he says. “I’m angry that the Americans have been allowed to do this and that I’ve not had the protection of the British government.”
A side of him would like to return to the world of golf and bridge and foreign holidays that he and his wife, Elaine, enjoyed before his extradition. But he cannot – at least not yet. First he wants to clear his name and seek redress from the US agency that entrapped him. “I need to exact some sort of retribution from the Americans,” he says.
He also intends to join the fight to change an extradition treaty that appears to breach some of the most basic principles of British law and has delivered at least 54 British citizens to the US justice system since 2004 – most without any chance to defend themselves at home. Nine US citizens have come the other way. “It’s given me a new purpose in life,” Tappin says. “I’ll do whatever I can to help change this terrible law.”
Whether Tappin really is innocent I have no idea. After four separate meetings with him I still cannot decide. The alleged offence is abhorrent, and US officials have privately assured me that the evidence is incontrovertible. But it is certainly hard to hear his story without concluding that he has been denied the fair trial to which he is entitled.
Tappin was born in nearby Beckenham, raised to believe in traditional British values, joined the West Kent Golf Club where his father had been a member for 40 years and played for the county. He served an apprenticeship with a freight forwarding company that shipped Tutankhamun’s treasures to Britain and London Bridge to Arizona, then founded his own freight forwarding company, Brooklands International, which eventually made him a wealthy man.
In 2006 a client, Robert Gibson, asked him to transport five industrial batteries from Texas to an automotive company in Amsterdam. Neither man realised the vendor, Mercury Global Enterprises, was a front company set up by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to trap businessmen engaged in the illegal export of controlled technologies.
Gibson was arrested that August when he went to inspect the batteries, and accused of attempting to send them via the Netherlands to Iran for use in Hawk air defence missiles. He plea-bargained, naming Tappin as a co-conspirator and providing allegedly incriminating emails. Undercover agents subsequently recorded phone conversations with Tappin about the batteries.
In February 2007 a grand jury sitting in El Paso, Texas, indicted Tappin on three counts. Tappin had no idea the jury was sitting, let alone any chance to defend himself.
Tappin only learnt of his indictment three years later, when two plain-clothes policemen arrived at his front door at 6am one May morning and arrested him because the US was seeking his extradition. He spent the night in Wandsworth prison before being released on £50,000 bail. That, his wife recalls, was “the beginning of the nightmare”.
Tappin insists he had no idea that the batteries were bound for Iran or had potential military use, and that the customer was responsible for obtaining the necessary export licences. He spent 20 months fighting extradition, but the magistrates’ court, high court and home secretary let it proceed because under the terms of the 2003 UK-US extradition treaty they had little choice.
The Blair and Bush administrations agreed the treaty at the height of the War on Terror to fast-track the extradition of terrorist suspects, although the US now uses it to extradite all manner of alleged offenders from the UK. It gives British judges no power to weigh the evidence against defendants, or to rule that they should be tried at home. It requires them merely to ascertain that the alleged offences are crimes in both countries, and that defendants will not face execution, human rights violations or additional charges if extradited. By contrast, a US judge must examine the quality of the case presented by British authorities before approving extradition.
“Unless there’s something truly extraordinary about your case, the odds on avoiding extradition are stacked heavily against you,” says Karen Todner, the solicitor who represented Tappin.
In February 2012, Tappin was ordered to report to Heathrow police station in nine days for delivery to the US. “I can’t believe it’s happening,” Tappin said in that first interview. “You watch people on television going to prison, but you don’t think it’s going to happen to you.” “It’s horrible, horrible,” added his wife, who at the time was suffering from a debilitating illness called Churg-Strauss syndrome.
I joined the Tappins on their drive to Heathrow. He had played his last game of golf two days earlier. He had said goodbye to his son and daughter over dinner the previous night – to avoid too many tears, his five-year-old grandson, Thomas, was absent. He was wearing a blazer and tie and leaning on a walking stick, looking as if he were going to a country house hotel, not a prison 5,000 miles away in Texas. In an overnight bag he had packed a change of clothes, toiletries and three books – the rules of golf, and autobiographies of Jeremy Clarkson and Seve Ballesteros.
As we drove round the M25 Elaine Tappin broke down several times. “Chris is going into the unknown. I don’t know when we’ll see him again,” she said. Even Tappin, a man not given to outward displays of emotion, clutched his wife’s hand and admitted he was petrified. At Heathrow he told the waiting media that the government’s failure to protect him was a “disgrace”, handed his BlackBerry and watch to his wife, and urged her: “Be strong.” He then surrendered to two US marshals.
Tappin’s reception in America was as bad as he had feared. He was flown to El Paso, manacled, and driven to the high-security Otero County Detention Centre in the New Mexico desert. There he was strip-searched, given an orange jumpsuit and locked up alone for ten days in a windowless cell 12ft long and 6ft wide with no reading material or television and lights that were never extinguished. “Where on earth have I been brought to? This is more like Guantánamo Bay,” he wrote in his diary. “They made it quite clear this was my punishment for resisting extradition.”
He was allowed into a small caged yard at dawn each day, but it was so cold he was forced inside within 20 minutes. “The guards were completely indifferent, quite hostile,” he says. His only other human contact was a single meeting with his lawyer. “We ate rice and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner – no meat.” A week passed before he was allowed a shower. “It was barbaric. I felt utter shock turning to despair,” he says.
Tappin lost track of day or night and came close to mental collapse. He survived by making a golf ball from tissue paper and toothpaste, using his stick as a club, his bed as a bunker and a cup as a hole. “I played all the golf courses I knew, all the best courses in England and Scotland. It kept my mind occupied. It enabled me to keep some form of sanity.”
Eventually he was taken back to El Paso for a bail hearing, shackled hand and foot. He had an impeccable record and no passport or ready cash, but the prosecution portrayed him as a flight risk because he had resisted extradition. Tappin was denied the bail he had counted on. “I could not believe it,” he says. “I was crushed. Returning to Otero filled me with horror.”
He spent another 50 days in Otero. “There was no presumption of innocence. I was treated as guilty from the moment I went out there.” He shared a cell 23 hours a day with 6 Native Americans, a Mexican and Luther Jones, a judge convicted of corruption. Jones “taught me how to survive” in a gang-infested prison, he says. They forged a mutual defence pact with the Mexican, traded food with the Native Americans to let them watch the TV news, and played chess and cards to keep sane.
Tappin was finally granted bail on a $1 million bond, but confined to Houston, placed under curfew, electronically tagged and banned from using the internet. He bought a car and rented a £3,000-a-month apartment while awaiting trial. He prepared his defence, played golf, read and went to the cinema.
He found a British shop where he could buy pork pies, sausages and PG Tips. He spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with an American golfing friend, but his wife was not well enough to visit. He was lonely and homesick and “everything was in limbo”, he says. “It was still a form of imprisonment. A prison doesn’t have to have four walls.”
Events unfolded exactly as his supporters had predicted. As Tappin tells it, the prosecution requested long delays. The trial kept receding into the distance. Tappin was haemorrhaging money to his lawyers. He knew that if he contested the charges and lost he faced not just bankruptcy, but 35 years – the rest of his life – in prison with no hope of repatriation. His lawyers, friends and family urged him to plea-bargain. “We may never see you again. You’ve got to do this,” his wife implored him. The imperative, Tappin says, was no longer to prove his innocence, but to get back to Britain as fast as possible.
The final straw came six months after he was released on bail. The prosecution produced tapes of Tappin’s phone conversations with undercover agents. It offered him 33 months’ imprisonment with expedited repatriation if he pleaded guilty to a single charge, and demanded an answer within 24 hours. Tappin claims the tapes were “expertly doctored” to make them appear more damning than they were – something that is impossible to verify. “They had cut a lot out, all the parts about export licences. They were damning. They had done a wonderful job ... it was going to be impossible to prove they were made up.” Tappin capitulated, as almost all US defendants do when faced with the consequences of going to trial and losing. Once again he had lost the chance to fight his case in a court of law.
“There’s no chance of proving your innocence. They stack the evidence against you and anything in your favour disappears,” he explains. Karen Todner, his British solicitor, agrees: “The defendant’s chances of having a fair trial are almost zero … Unless you enter a plea agreement you have no prospect of imminently returning to the UK.”
His wife was sustained by the support of her children, friends and complete strangers who wrote to “Elaine Tappin, wife of extradited Briton, Orpington, Kent”. The postman brought her the best wishes of his colleagues at the sorting office. Despite health problems she did manage to visit her husband in Houston before he began his sentence, and he had to obtain special permission to see her off because he was banned from the airport. “It was a little bit tearful,” Tappin says of their farewell. This time it was she who urged him to “stay strong”.
On March 8 last year, Tappin’s lawyer drove him 400 miles from Houston to the Big Spring prison complex east of Fort Worth. Once again he was strip-searched, put in a jumpsuit and placed in “quarantine” for a week. This time he had a window and 2 magazines but was locked up alone for 24 hours a day.
Tappin spent five months in three different prisons within the complex, some worse than others. He shared cells with as many as 84 prisoners, and as few as 5. The vast majority were Hispanic, and he did not speak Spanish. He was one of the oldest inmates. There were gangs, drugs and homosexuality. “On the day I arrived an Australian guy was beaten up by a Mexican gang he owed money to,” recalls Tappin. Another day he cowered in fear as armed guards used concussion grenades to suppress a prison riot and put 60 inmates in the “Shoe” – the isolation unit. He heard occasional beatings, and at night the screams of prisoners in solitary. “They were terrible, and will always be vivid in my mind,” he says.
“You look back on it and think, ‘God, how did you survive these things?’” he says. “I just kept myself to myself. I read a lot. I didn’t pose any threat. I just kept my head down.” He joined Sonora, one of the prison’s half-dozen gangs, for protection – “I always ran with the biggest one,” he explains. He played by the inmates’ rules, accepting collective punishment when a mobile was found in his cell rather than “snitch” on its owner, and never talking to a guard without a chaperone so he could not be accused of informing. He helped prisoners by writing letters for them. Being literate, he landed a job as head of sanitation, which came with an office, radio, desk and typewriter.
Though not particularly religious, he sometimes prayed because “you need some inward solace”.
Tappin realised repatriation was approaching when he had to state before a court that he wished to go home and would not appeal his conviction. A fortnight later he was flown to New York on a “Con Air” flight with 100 chained male convicts shouting obscenities and wolf-whistling at the 40 female convicts on the same flight. He spent the next month in the Manhattan detention complex, an 11-storey prison full of hardened criminals and “the dirtiest, filthiest, horriblest place” of all. Prisoners bet on cockroach races. The kitchen harboured rats. Food came in tins stamped “Not fit for human consumption”. His first cell-mate was “Bad Boy”, who had apparently murdered his previous cell-mate. His second was a Chinese Triads hitman who told Tappin he had killed four men, then spoke not another word to him.
One morning last September two British prison officers came to Tappin’s cell and said he was going home. An hour later he was speeding through New York in a convoy of three police vehicles. Soon he was flying back to Heathrow, unhandcuffed, on a British Airways plane. “That was fantastic. I was elated. I had been through a barbaric time and felt I was going back to civilisation,” he says. “It was a huge relief when I stepped off that aircraft.”
From Heathrow he was driven to Wandsworth prison, where the governor shook his hand and addressed him as “Mr Tappin”. With his other hand he gave Tappin a bill for £896.20 for his flight home.
He spent the next eight months at Wandsworth, Wayland in Norfolk, and the Mount in Hertfordshire. The British prisons were relatively civilised, he says. Tappin took courses in IT and photography. At the Mount he gave lectures on human rights and capital punishment in America, and wrote articles for the prison magazine.
On May 8, still clutching his walking stick, he was released on home detention curfew. At a celebration dinner with his family, he met his second grandchild, Digby, born while he was in Big Spring. “I was ecstatic,” he says. What his wife calls a “ghastly nightmare” was over.
A few weeks on, Tappin is still coming to terms with what has happened to him. He has spent time in 11 British and US prisons and now has a criminal record for life. He has had to sell his holiday home to pay legal and other costs of nearly £500,000, and may swap his main home for something smaller. “We certainly aren’t comfortably off any more,” he says. Friends and acquaintances have welcomed him back – he was given a free haircut by his barber, a free bottle of wine at a local pub and free use of a local driving range – but feels his name has been sullied amid the wider population. “A lot of people say there’s no smoke without fire. I pleaded guilty and that’s all they see,” he says. He can never return to the US, although he would not want to. His family’s privacy has been destroyed. “I feel like I’ve been bombed by a drone,” he observes.
But Tappin is not yet ready to retreat back into his gated estate, or to spend hours on his beloved golf course. He is anxious that those two years should not be wasted. “I want to stop it happening to other people,” he says. He intends to write a book, and is ready to join a growing number of parliamentarians, lawyers and civil rights activists campaigning for reform of the Extradition Act 2003.
Whether Tappin was guilty or not, few people on this side of the Atlantic seriously dispute that the treaty itself is flawed. Following Tappin’s high-profile extradition David Cameron asked President Obama for a review of its workings, saying he wanted more cases heard in Britain. Dominic Grieve QC, the attorney-general, called Tappin’s extradition “stressful and distressing” and acknowledged “underlying fundamental problems”. The home affairs select committee called for “significant changes” to a treaty that had lost the public’s confidence. Those changes should include the right for judges to test the evidence presented against British citizens, and to rule that cases should be heard in Britain if that was where the substance of the alleged offence occurred.
But little has changed. Last summer the Home Office produced guidelines for deciding where a case should be heard that actually made extradition more likely, or so critics contend. Faced with a public outcry Theresa May, the home secretary, blocked the extradition of Gary McKinnon, the young man with Asperger’s syndrome accused of hacking Pentagon computers, on human rights grounds, but the conveyor belt rolls on. Between 2007 and 2012 at least 84 people were arrested in Britain following US extradition requests, some of them terrorist suspects such as Abu Hamza, but others businessmen and students. Next up for extradition are David McIntyre, a former soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder accused of overcharging for security services in Iraq – a charge he denies – and Eileen Clark, who fled an unhappy marriage in the US and now stands accused of kidnapping her three children.
Last month Paul and Sandra Dunham, a retired couple from Northamptonshire, tried to kill themselves on the eve of their extradition on fraud and money-laundering charges that they deny. Tappin is sympathetic. If he ever faced the same ordeal again, he says, “I would give a lot more credence to suicide.”