European Arrest Warrants: unjust and ripe for reform?
Why MPs are campaigning for reform of a law that fast-tracks the extradition of Britons to EU countries
EUROPEAN Arrest Warrants are once again in the news after WikiLeaks boss Julian Assange lost an appeal against extradition to Sweden and MPs failed in a bid to have the issue debate in the House of Commons. EAWs will now be debated on November 24 at Westminster Hall, but there will be no vote - and MPs and campaigners are baffled.
What are European Arrest Warrants?
EAWs were introduced across the European Union in 2004. They allow the fast-track extradition of a suspect between EU nations - if the offence they are alleged to have committed carries a penalty of 12 or more months in jail. Where a person has already been convicted, the EAW can only be enforced if the sentence they received is four months or more.
Why are European Arrest Warrants controversial?
EAWs are based upon the assumption that the standard of justice across European Unions is equal. Not everyone agrees with this premise.
* People have reportedly been extradited for offences which would be considered trivial in the UK, such as bicycle theft and piglet rustling.
* Extradition courts are also not allowed to take into account the quality of the evidence against the accused.
* There is no way of removing an EAW once it has been issued. If the EAW is refused by one country, the accused is effectively unable to travel within the EU for fear of being arrested again.
The sheer number of new extradition cases means the issue of EAWs will not go away. Last year, more than 1,000 people were sent for trial abroad - and the number has been increasing year-on-year.
Have EAWs been abused?
Fair Trials International cites a number of cases of injustice relating to EAWs.
* Garry Mann, an England football fan found guilty in Portugal of involvement in a 2004 riot, was told he would not have to serve the sentence as long as he stayed out of the country for a year. Despite observing the restrictions, in 2009 he was arrested under an EAW to serve the sentence in Portugal. A British High Court judge described Mann's treatment as "an embarrassment", but had to allow the extradition to go ahead.
* Andrew Symeou was accused of killing a teenager at a nightclub on the Greek island of Zakynthos. After being extradited from Britain in July 2009, he spent 11 months in prison and a year on bail in Greece before being cleared. The British extradition court had been powerless to take into account the flawed evidence in the case.
* In the case of Julian Assange, Sweden's use of an EAW has been questioned because prosecutors have not charged him with an offence; they merely want him to answer questions relating to accusations of sexual misconduct.
How could EAWs be improved?
Fair Trials International has called for a number of reforms, including:
* Stop extradition for minor crimes
* An end to extradition of British residents who could serve short sentences closer to home
* The need for the EU to improve fair trial rights and stop unnecessary pre-trial detention
* A power to defer a person's extradition where the country requesting it is not ready to begin the trial.
Is reform likely?
An independent review conducted by Sir Scott Baker into the EAW has found it does not operate "unfairly or oppressively". The Home Secretary Theresa May is currently considering the report.
However, Sir Scott has been criticised from a number of quarters, including by the head of the Home Affairs Committee, Keith Vaz, who expressed concern that it had "not shed any light on the ease of extradition", and human rights organisation Liberty said it was "completely baffled" by the report.
MPs believe they can secure a Commons motion on extradition reform, including a vote, early in the New Year. ·