The Telegraph reports that British courts are being flooded with hundreds of trivial cases as a result of Europe’s extradition laws, according to a damning report.
The high volume of requests is placing an “unjustified burden” on police and prisons, the campaign group Fair Trials International (FTI) will warn.
Its report, which will be submitted this week to a Government review of extradition, calls for sweeping changes to the operation of the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) system.
It comes amid growing criticism that judges are sending people abroad with “no questions asked” at the behest of foreign countries, often over allegations of petty crimes or offences committed many years ago, and with little regard to potentially-serious human rights abuses.
The Sunday Telegraph can also reveal that EU leaders have admitted the system is not working properly, with the Justice Commissioner conceding in a letter there is “considerable room for improvement” in the operation of EAWs.
Last year Britain received more than 4,000 extradition requests from other EU states.
More than half were from Poland, which has been accused of bombarding countries with expensive extradition demands over minor matters such as the theft of a pig, stealing chocolate bars and exceeding a bank overdraft limit.
British citizens who have fallen foul of the system include a businessman who spent four months in a Hungarian prison but has never been charged with an offence, and a grandmother who endured repeated arrests before her extradition case was eventually thrown out.
The report is the most detailed critique of the EAW system since it was introduced in 2004, when supporters argued that it was needed to bring terrorists and serious criminals to justice.
It reveals that Britain receives far more extradition requests than any other European country, placing a massive burden on already-overstretched police forces, courts and prisons.
Britain was hit with 4,100 EAW requests last year, compared with 1,629 made to Spain, 967 to France and 683 to Holland.
Meanwhile, the UK, which unlike some countries does not seek extradition for minor offences, made only 220 requests to other European countries.
Across Europe, warrant requests have more than quadrupled, from 3,353 in 2004 to 14,789 last year, heaping costly bureaucracy on member states.
In its report, which this week will be submitted to the independent review set up by the Government to recommend reforms, FTI calls on ministers to introduce a new “proportionality test” that would slash the number of cases Britain has to process.
The test would be applied by judges who would decide whether the offence in the requesting state was serious enough to merit extradition, taking into account factors such as the length of time that had passed, the length of prison sentence awaiting the individual, and the impact on their family life.
The report calls on Britain to press the EU into overhauling the system – and the European Commission now admits change is needed.
A group of leading extradition lawyers and experts has written to Viviane Reding, the Commission’s vice-president in charge of justice, warning that fast-track EAWs are posing a “serious threat to fundamental rights”.
In her reply, Mrs Reding admits “… there is considerable room for improvement in the operation of the EAW system”, and reveals that an ongoing Commission investigation will seek to improve the system.
Getting member states to agree a “proportionality test” is a “particular priority”, she says.
The FTI report urges the Government’s review panel, led by Sir Scott Baker, the appeal judge, to make several other recommendations, including:
- That the requesting state be forced to pay the costs of handling extradition cases that are thrown out for being trivial.
- That British judges refuse extradition requests when they hear compelling evidence that human rights will be breached. This would apply where prison conditions do not meet basic standards or suspects face being kept on remand for years.
- That the Government puts pressure on EU leaders to introduce fundamental reforms of the EAW system while also changing domestic law.
The report criticises the “rushed” extradition system, which it says has jeopardised human rights because it requires countries to have “blind faith” in each other’s prosecution and penal systems. In reality, it says, standards of justice vary wildly.
It calls on the review panel not to “shrink from making strong recommendations for reforming the EAW legislation”.
It warns: “Unless action is taken, many more people will suffer injustice as a result of this ‘no questions asked’ extradition system.”
Despite Britain having to cope with demands far greater than any other EU country, the Government is unable to say how much the system is costing taxpayers.
One clue comes from Ireland, where a judge has stated that each successful extradition costs the country 25,000 euros (£21,300).
Assuming Britain faces similar costs, it means the UK spent around £17 million last year dealing with 699 people who were arrested and surrendered, with many more millions of pounds effectively wasted on unsuccessful cases.
The report says the processing of vast number of minor cases ” … not only leads to injustice in individual cases. It also places a significant and unjustified burden on the resources of member states.
“The UK, for example, has consistently borne the brunt of a large and ever-growing number of EAWs issued by Poland.”
The operation of EAWs has once again been thrust into the spotlight by the case of Julian Assange, the founder of the Wikileaks website, who is fighting an extradition move by Sweden over sexual assault claims.
Whereas Swedish prosecutors want Mr Assange extradited so he can be questioned over the allegations, campaigners say that EAWs should only be used to prosecute or to enforce a sentence.
Catherine Heard, chief policy officer at FTI, told The Sunday Telegraph: “Our clients’ cases highlight serious and recurring problems with the arrest warrant.
“Their stories show the toll that extradition takes on their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
“Ordinary people – teachers, firemen, chefs, students – have seen their lives and futures blighted by this ‘no questions asked’ extradition system that fails to safeguard their basic human rights.
“The warrant was rushed into law on the naive assumption that all justice systems in Europe guarantee defendants’ rights. Only now is Europe waking up to the reality.”
She added: “In too many cases, untried detainees are held alongside convicted prisoners, sometimes in horrendous conditions, waiting months or even years for a trial.
“The arrest warrant is being used to consign hundreds of people to this kind of ordeal each year – every one of them supposedly ‘innocent until proven guilty’.”
On the costs, Mr Russell said police are having to process ever-growing numbers of arrest warrants, while facing “severe cuts”.
“A proportionality test would weed out warrants for trivial cases, allowing Europe’s police forces to concentrate on serious crime,” he said.
A Home Office spokesman said: “The UK’s extradition arrangements – including the operation of the EAW – are currently being reviewed by an independent panel to ensure they operate effectively and in the interests of justice.
“We will not pre-empt the outcome of that review.”
Source: Daily Telegraph
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