This week has seen the issue of the infamous European Arrest Warrant rear its ugly head once again in the political discourse of the UK. For those who are unaware of what the EAW entails, it is a system that was designed to streamline the extradition process amongst European Union member states. While plans for such a thing date back as far as 1990s, it was in 2002 that the relevant EU Framework came into existence, probably due to the panic caused by the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
Under this system, a member state can issue an arrest warrant for an individual in another member state for any crime carrying a sentence of more than 12 months imprisonment. Unlike most extradition requests, it bypasses diplomatic channels entirely and there is no clause within the framework to allow member states to refuse to extradite their nationals (previously, the Home Secretary would have had discretion to refuse an extradition). The crime in question need not be one which is a crime in the state where the person is residing, so for example, if possession of drugs is illegal in one state but not in the one where the target of the warrant resides, this doesn't allow for a refusal of the warrant.
Obviously a system which allows us to tackle terrorists and serious organised crime in a more efficient manner is to be commended. However, the EAW has some very worrying drawbacks which have been illustrated not just by a number of notable cases but also by some of the cultural differences between member states.
Perhaps the most infamous case in question is that of Andrew Symeou, extradited to Greece in 2009 in relation to the death of a man in a bar in 2007. What's rather absurd about the case is the fact he spent ten months in jail before being brought to trial. Surely the Greek authorities should have had enough evidence to bring him to trial sooner if they had enough evidence to extradite him from the UK? While the charges were dropped in 2011, it does frighten me that it could take a first world country in Europe, the best part of two years AFTER taking custody of someone to finally decide they didn't have enough evidence to proceed (there are also numerous reports of the poor conditions in Greece jails and of the police obtaining evidence through witness intimidation). If the Police here in the UK held someone in custody for two years without bringing them to trial there would be outrage!
But not only this, there are examples of people being arrested and extradited on the basis of crimes committed many years before and in some cases, very minor ones. There is the case of Deborah Dark, acquitted on drug charges in France in 1989 and then rearrested on the same charges 20 years later via the EAW. Or what about the case of Jacek Jasolski, who faced potential extradition to Poland over an exceeded overdraft limit he eventually paid back?
And now, we have the spectre of a young woman being extradited to Italy accused of making false rape claims and facing potentially 12 years in jail. Now, obviously if these claims were false, this lady must answer for it but what if they aren't? Will we have another episode where some is dragged abroad, left in jail for months on end and then acquitted at the end only to have had their life turned upside down?
But it's not just these cases that should more us wary of the EAW. There are some important cultural differences between the judicial systems of EU member states we should keep in mind. In the UK, specifically England and Wales, trial by jury exists for crimes tried in the Crown Court (Magistrates Courts do not have juries). These include the vast majority of serious crimes such as murder and rape, as well as crimes that can be tried in either the Crown or Magistrate's setting (such as Actual Bodily Harm, Arson etc). However in countries such as France, Italy and Greece, jury trials only exist for the most serious crimes such as murder. Whatever the pros and cons of the jury system (and it is certainly be no means perfect), surely in a political collective like the EU we should have a common mindset about such things before we allow a fast track system of extradition for our citizens to places where a judge alone might decide the persons fate despite the same crime being one that might be tried be jury here in the UK.
It's bad enough this country is seen to have an unfair extradition arrangement with the United States (who still insist on holding people in Guantanamo Bay with charge for years on end) which has seen people extradited for crimes committed in this country against US targets or in violation of US sanctions (Christopher Tappin selling batteries to Iran). But now we have this equally absurd system with the EU. What was wrong the previous arrangement of asking a foreign jurisdiction to make its case before a British judge before an extradition could be approved? We still have that arrangement with many other countries, why not the EU?
I also utterly reject this notion that if we don't fully comply with the EAW that we will become a haven for terrorists and paedophiles. Surely we should stop these people coming into the UK in the first place? Plus, in the case of someone accused of such a serious crime, I'm sure the average British judge (despite the failings of the judiciary) would approve an extradition order if the foreign body presents evidence of said crime.
As I stated above, any system to help fight major crime is to be commended but not when it allows for abuse and for people being left in limbo (or worse, a jail cell) for years on end before anything has been resolved. Justice should been in a timely manner. Leaving someone on remand for ten months while you gather evidence, years after the crime in question is not timely nor is it justice. It is a mockery of it.. We wouldn't extradite someone to face a firing squad in China so why should extradite someone to face a squalid existence on remand in a jail not fit for purpose in the first world, for a crime they haven't yet been found guilty of?
I also accept that the UK cannot claim to have a squeaky clean judicial system. Many are the times I've wanted to throw something at a wall when I hear a violent criminal has had a slap on the wrist but someone who offended someone on Facebook or Twatter has been jailed for four months or something equally silly. In fact, if the US could attempt to obtain Gary McKinnon for hacking into US computers while residing in the UK, what's to stop another EU member state from having you extradited for writing something on a website someone in that state found offensive? (Since when has being offended been a Human right by the way?)
Good intentions, once again paving a nice long road to bad places.