PC Advisor readers are divided over the fate of British hacker Gary McKinnon, who faces a trial in the US if his appeal against extradition to the US is blocked by the European Court of Human Rights next week.

The France-based court held up McKinnon's extradition earlier this month and called for an August 28 meeting to decide whether attempts to try him in the US should be blocked.

McKinnon, 42, is charged in the US with eight counts of unauthorised access and causing damage to a protected computer. He was indicted in 2002 for allegedly breaking into military computers and other government systems in 2001 and 2002. He has been fighting extradition since then, and so far has been able to stay out of the US and its courts.

McKinnon has contended that if extradited to the US, he could be treated as a terrorist, tried in a military tribunal and ultimately imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay - and the issue has led to fierce debate on the PC Advisor forums.

Over 1,000 people voted in our poll asking whether McKinnon should be extradited, and opinions were divided. Nearly 52 percent of respondents said his extradition should be blocked, but 48 percent believed he should be tried in the country where his hacking efforts were said to have caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage.

Many forum members believe that despite US claims that McKinnon's hacking efforts disrupted computer networks used by the military that were critical to operations conducted after the September 11 attacks, his success in exposing weaknesses in US defences ultimately helped officials plug holes that could have been exploited by those with bigger agendas.

"Better him hacking in and finding a flaw than a terrorist organisation," said TomLinny, who said the US was "just trying to cover themselves from the embarrassment of having bad security".

Others took a firmer stance.

"It is surprising how many people think it was ok for this nerd to hack into computers," said PC Advisor forum member Pine Man. "I suppose they also think that virus making and spamming are just harmless pastimes as well - clearly his supporters don't have computers - or brains!"

But the issue of whether Europe should allow McKinnon to be extradited was the main focus of debate on the forums. McKinnon lost his last UK appeal on July 30. He fought extradition on the grounds that US authorities bullied him, and tried to elicit a confession from him in exchange for a lesser sentence, a tactic known as plea bargaining and commonly used by prosecutors in the US.

"I have no time for Gary McKinnon and think his activities were despicable and deserving of some punishment, but not in a US court," said John Day. "America will not allow its citizens to be tried outside the US legal system so, by the same token, we should not let them try British citizens in their courts."

Nonetheless, PC Advisor reader MalcolmF insisted the hacker's fate should be decided by US courts.

"If a crime was committed, it was committed in the US, irrespective of where McKinnon was sitting at the time," said MalcolmF.

Our very own Forum Editor agreed. "This man is indeed accused of committing offences in America - 97 of them in fact... Offences that are committed electronically are offences, regardless of the location of the person who commits them."

See the PC Advisor forum thread covering McKinnon's fate here, and a separate thread discussing the results of our poll here.

With additional reporting from Jeremy Kirk