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Sunday 9 March 2008

Crime and punishment with grace

Conrad Black is taking his jailing in characteristic spirit, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Alas, poor Conrad, since Monday inmate number 18330-824 of Coleman Federal Correction Complex in Florida. But Conrad Black does not do self-pity. "It's not great," he told a journalist, "but it's not the end of the world."

I had emailed him the previous Friday saying, "I wish you well in the next stage of your adventurous career, and I look forward to the book." The reply was a classic. "Dear Ruth, Thanks for your message. You might enjoy my farewell greeting in the NP on Monday. The government's case is still disintegrating and I still expect justice to prevail. We soldier on. Best wishes, Conrad."

I duly looked at his valedictory piece in the National Post, a paper he founded, which was a lively account of the sequence of what he describes as "baleful" events that took him from rich and famous international newspaper mogul to cash-strapped and infamous jailbird. Having followed the case, I share his broad interpretation that what happened was "the criminalisation of what was and remains a civil factional corporate dispute".

His take on the legal process was summed up neatly: "My faith in the United States has inspired me to persevere, despite what I believe has been the prosecution's insufficient respect for the Fifth and Sixth Amendment guarantees of due process, of the grand jury as an assurance against capricious prosecution, of no seizure of assets without just compensation, of speedy justice, access to counsel and reasonable bail. I have been besieged by various agencies of the US government for more than four years, and I know of only one higher bond in US history than the $38m I have been posting."

There was no whinging, but Black admitted that it was "a terrible thing to be falsely accused, and wrongly convicted, even of a fraction of the original charges, and unjustly incarcerated. For persisting in seeking the recognition of my innocence of these charges, I have been portrayed as defiant, or at least in denial." I have a lot of sympathy with him there: it is one of the unfairnesses of the American legal system that it is loaded against the innocent who refuse to yield to bribes and threats to plead guilty.

Black is a devout Catholic, so I also believe him when he says: "As a conscientious and religious matter, I believe in the confession and repentance of misconduct, as well as in the punishment of crimes. If I had committed any of the offences charged, I would have pleaded guilty and asked for a sentence that would enable me to atone for my crime and assuage my guilt and shame."

He'll be fighting on from his prison which, from all accounts, is not a jolly place -- though by US standards it could be a lot worse. "This is not a scary place," Black said of it. "There's no violence there. I expect it to be somewhat boring." Not to speak of lacking privacy. He will sleep in a bunk bed in a 10' 8" two- or three-man cubicle in a housing unit of 180 or so. This night-owl will have to rise at 6am, and while he is hoping to be asked to teach, he may well be required to scrub floors.

His lip, I imagine, will have curled when he read the fatuous introduction to the inmates' handbook: "Our goal is to minimise the negative experiences you have during incarceration and provide opportunities for personal growth and development."

His wife Barbara Amiel, will be allowed to visit him nine times a month, and there will be opportunities for friends to visit, and books and limited access to telephones and email, so he won't have to rely on the prison staff entirely for help in growing and developing.

Black majors on hope. With an appeal due in June, he might yet be given bail during the period between the case being argued and the judgment. If he wins, he would be free to start suing the ass off his persecutors. If the appeal fails, he has to serve 85 per cent of his six-and-a-half-year sentence, but George W Bush might give him a presidential pardon as he leaves office. Before anyone protests, might I remind you that Bill Clinton pardoned around 140 pretty dodgy people as he left the White House, including Marc Rich, a tax-evading billionaire who had donated heavily to Clinton campaigns.

Quoting Thoreau, Black said, "Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison." A splendid sentiment, Conrad, but let's hope your stay is brief.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards