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Iceland 5, Arpaio 0

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Iceland's supreme court has upheld the decision of a lower-court judge who had refused to extradite Connie and Donald Hanes to Maricopa County because of conditions in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jails.

In July, District Court Judge Ingibjorg Benediktsdottir heard evidence about the condition of the county jails--including a half-hour German television documentary which called Arpaio's methods "medieval"--and found that Iceland would violate its standards of inmate treatment by forcibly evicting the couple.

On Friday, in a 5-0 decision, the country's high court affirmed Benediktsdottir's ruling, but made little mention of Maricopa County's jails.

Instead, the justices criticized Iceland's Ministry of Justice for bringing the extradition order in the first place, pointing out that the Haneses have always asserted that they intend to return to Arizona voluntarily if certain conditions are met.

If the Haneses do return, they face charges of custodial interference, which carries a sentence of two to eight years of imprisonment. They are accused of illegally taking Connie's granddaughter, Zenith, away from her mother, Scottsdale resident Kelly Helton.

The Haneses had battled with Helton for custody of Zenith for years. Helton had at one time signed over custody of Zenith to her mother, Connie Hanes, but later changed her mind, saying she was unaware that she had given up all future rights to her daughter. A Utah court eventually sided with Helton, giving her sole custody of her daughter, but allowed the Haneses to continue to visit Zenith. On one of those visits in October 1995, the Haneses disappeared with the little girl.

Eventually, the FBI took Zenith from her Iceland preschool and returned her to Helton.

Iceland's Ministry of Justice sought to extradite the Haneses, but the supreme court said that was premature since the Haneses have maintained that they'll voluntarily return to Arizona to stand trial, given three conditions. The couple's local attorney, Thomas Hoidal, says that only Maricopa County can grant those conditions, but so far the county has refused to cooperate.

The conditions: First, the Haneses ask that all warrants for their arrest be dropped, so that they won't have to travel as prisoners within the United States on their way to a court appearance. Second, they ask that reasonable bail be set, so that they won't have to await trial in the county's jail. And third, if they are convicted and sentenced, they ask that none of their sentence be served in Maricopa County.

The Iceland high court pointed out that U.S. attorneys had agreed to drop federal warrants against the Haneses if Maricopa County consented, but Hoidal's letters to deputy county attorney Louis Stalzer have gone unanswered.

Given that standoff, the justices wrote, Iceland's Ministry of Justice would have done better to exert its influence upon U.S. officials rather than attempt to force the Haneses to leave Iceland.

One justice, Hrafn Bragason, agreed with the ruling, but in a dissenting opinion said that there was reason to question whether the Haneses had committed a crime at all. "[The dispute] is primarily characterised by conflicts within the defendants' family. There is room for disagreement as to what would have been to the best advantage of the defendants' granddaughter," Bragason writes in an official English translation.

Bragason also mentions evidence of the inhumane conditions of Arpaio's jails, and cites the March 1996 Department of Justice report on the jails as well as "evidence from respected international organisations," apparently referring to recent findings by Amnesty International.

Arpaio's office didn't return phone calls about the decision.

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