Breaking a year-long deadlock, the United States Senate has taken a major step toward final approval of a treaty that would make it harder for Irish terrorists to find refuge in the US. By a 15 to 2 vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved a revised version of a 1972 extradition treaty between the United States and Great Britain that partially erases a longstanding distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters.
Full Senate approval of the treaty is expected later this year. Such action would remove an irritant in relations between the two allies. The British government has balked at existing US extradition procedures, which have been invoked by members of the Irish Republican Army to avoid being returned to Britain for trial in connection with violence stemming from the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The Reagan administration has urged Senate approval of the revised treaty as a way of rewarding the British for their support of last April's US air strike on Libya.
Under the terms of the original draft treaty submitted to Congress last June, fugitives seeking refuge in the US would be unable to claim that crimes such as murder, kidnapping, and the use of explosives were committed in a political context.
Opponents of the new treaty, led by committee Democrats and conservative Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, objected that by broadening the list of extraditable crimes the US was abandoning its historic role as a place of refuge for persons involved in politically motivated offenses.
By the terms of the compromise, Republicans on the Foreign Relations panel agreed to narrow the list of extraditable crimes by omitting two offenses -- possession of firearms and conspiracy. The committee also agreed to leave extradition decisions in the hands of US courts rather than the State Department as called for in the original Reagan draft treaty.
A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which opposes the treaty, last week gave the compromise mixed reviews.
``The bad news is that, for all practical purposes, the treaty ends a longstanding American tradition of judicial neutrality toward participants in armed uprisings abroad,'' says Susan Benda. ``The good news is that the treaty now has a safeguard against trumped-up charges.''
The revised treaty requires US courts to deny extradition if the request is politically motivated or would result in an unfair trial.
But US officials also acknowledge the political utility of the agreement. ``Clearly the treaty was due on its own merits,'' says an administration source. ``But beyond that, there's a clear feeling here that this is especially appropriate in light of Britain's solid support for US policy in recent years.''
A State Department official says that in the coming months the US will seek similiar modifications in the political offense exceptions in extradition treaties with at least seven other, mostly West European, allies.