Fast-track extradition: the European Arrest Warrant is being routinely misused

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In 2002 the EU created the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), a fast-track system for extraditing people from one EU country to another. It was rushed in as part of Europe’s response to the terrorist threat, and was meant to help tackle serious cross-border crime more effectively.

The new system has done away with the traditional barriers to extradition. It is based on the principle of ‘mutual recognition’ – if one country demands a person’s extradition, others must recognise that decision without asking too many questions.

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This kind of EU cooperation can certainly help in the fight against crime – people should not be able to commit crimes and escape justice by crossing Europe’s open borders. Sadly, in practice, the EAW is not operating as it was meant to. As the following cases demonstrate, it has in fact resulted in some serious cases of injustice.

There is no way to remove warrants where extradition would result in injustice. Deborah Dark, for example, is being pursued across Europe by the French government, which wants her to serve a six-year prison sentence imposed in 1990.

Rearrest riskDeborah had been set up to drive a car packed with drugs from Spain to France. As she knew nothing about the drugs, the trial court cleared her of all charges, yet the prosecution appealed.

As neither Deborah nor her lawyer was informed about the appeal, no one was there to present her defence and she was convicted. She knew nothing about this until 2008 when she was arrested at Alicante airport after a family holiday. After a month on remand, the Spanish courts refused to extradite her because so many years had passed. She returned to the UK but was arrested again at Gatwick. Thankfully, the British courts agreed it would be unjust to extradite her. Yet the French refuse to remove the warrant, which means Deborah would be rearrested if she left the UK.

Although designed to deal with serious crime, EAWs are often issued for minor crimes. This puts huge pressure on the police and courts, and shipping people across Europe for petty crimes is, in itself, grossly disproportionate.

MJ (anonymity requested), for example, was 18 years old when he went on holiday to Spain. While there he was arrested over two fake €50 notes found in his hotel room, notes apparently bought from a well-known travel agent. He was eventually released and allowed to return to the UK. He heard nothing more until four years later, when officers from the Serious Organised Crime Agency arrested him on an EAW. He was extradited to Spain and spent nine weeks in a high-security jail – all this for unknowingly possessing two fake bank notes.

Foreign courtsAnother of our clients, Andrew Symeou, has spent months in a Greek jail since his extradition last July. He was denied bail because he is not a Greek citizen. Sadly, before ordering his extradition, British courts refused to consider the fact that the case against him is based on two statements that witnesses have claimed were beaten out of them.

Another client, Garry Mann, is awaiting a decision on whether he will be extradited to Portugal to serve a sentence imposed after a trial which saw him arrested, tried and convicted in the space of 48 hours. A British police officer who was present at the trial has described how Garry was unable to instruct a lawyer or understand the proceedings due to the poor quality of interpretation provided.

EAWs have already been used to transfer thousands of individuals around Europe. In 2008, nearly 14,000 were issued – 351 people were extradited under EAWs from the UK alone. The numbers look set to increase. In April, Britain becomes part of a pan-European system for sending out warrants. The Home Office predicts that this could result in around three times the number of UK arrests. If the system is not improved, this will also mean many more cases of injustice.

Jago Russell is a chief executive of Fair Trials International

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