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Arrested abroad - Stefan's story
In summer 2021, Stefan* and his partner went on holiday to Italy. It was particularly exciting because this was their first trip away since the pandemic began. However, on their first morning, they came down to breakfast to find police officers waiting for them.
Stefan, who is German could not understand what the police were saying to their hotel manager. Other hotel guests were staring and he started to feel uneasy. He was asked to accompany the police to the station, and as he felt he could not refuse the police, he agreed.
What Stefan didn’t know was that this was the beginning of a long, confusing and dehumanising process where he would have to face the power of not one, but three States. He would be detained in prison and not able to leave for three months while judicial authorities in Germany, the UK and Italy determined his fate.
In 2017, Stefan had been charged with the offence of ‘violent disorder’ for his alleged involvement in a stadium unrest in the United Kingdom (UK). Even though this was not a serious criminal offence, the UK issued a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) in July 2020. This required Stefan to be arrested and extradited from Germany, where he lives, to be prosecuted and tried in the UK.
The failing of the EAW mechanism is intrinsic to Stefan’s story. EAWs are used as a fast-track system for the arrest and extradition of a person in one EU Member State to stand trial or serve a prison sentence in another Member State. The EAW was adopted in the wake of the 2001 9/11 attacks amid concerns that existing extradition laws could not effectively tackle serious cross-border crimes. But as Stefan’s case shows, they are being disproportionately used for a range of less serious offences with devastating impact.
In January 2021, Germany denied Stefan’s extradition to the UK, a decision which was consistent with Germany’s blanket ban on extraditions to the UK post Brexit. The German Prosecutor deemed arrest and extradition unnecessary and, in consultation with the UK authorities, opened proceedings against Stefan for the alleged offence in Germany so that he could remain there.
Nevertheless, the UK failed to withdraw Stefan’s EAW so it stayed in the system, despite the agreement with Germany not to enforce it. At no point was Stefan notified of these ongoing proceedings or that there were any restrictions on his movements. He lived his life as normal until he decided to go on holiday. After one night in Italy, he was arrested by the Italian authorities.
From his hotel, Stefan was taken to the police station and placed in custody. No one spoke to him in a language he understood. Not the police officers, not the lawyer assigned to him in what can only be described as a box ticking ‘access to lawyer’ exercise, not the administrator of the prison he was taken to, nor the detention staff.
Stefan didn’t know why he was being sent to prison, but the authorities continued to detain him, pending a final court decision on his extradition to the UK and on the complex legal and bureaucratic intricacies surrounding the validity of EAWs post Brexit. Pre-trial detention is supposed to be a measure of last resort. It is one of the harshest sanctions a state can impose on a person. But, as we see in Stefan’s case, it is routinely used ‘just in case’. And in many European countries, there is no maximum legal duration for this ordeal. This has devastating consequences on people’s lives and health.
Stefan spent two weeks in a prison in Brescia, Italy, before he was moved into house arrest. This was despite reassurances from the German Prosecutor to the Italian authorities that there wasn’t any risk that Stefan could ‘escape’ from Germany should he be allowed to return home: he has a ‘permanent place of residence’ and ‘strong social ties’ in the country.
Most of us cannot imagine being locked up for a day let alone weeks without a trial and without a visible end date. The way Stefan describes his prison experience can be best summed up as profound dehumanisation. No one could tell him why he was there and for how long. His scheduled lawyer visits got cancelled. He did not have a towel or a change of clothes. His only contact with the outside was a letter from his partner asking to translate legal concepts by the lawyers. When she managed to give him some money, he discovered it could not be used in prison.
His trial kept getting postponed. He felt depressed and could tell most of his peers were also unwell. But there was no one to talk to about this and no medical care provided. One day, he witnessed someone attempting to take their own life, under the impassive gaze of detention staff. To ‘the system’, these men were disposable bodies.
This was confirmed to Stefan when he was finally brought before a judge. After spending an entire day in the basement of a courthouse, he was sat in a cage, handcuffed, in the proximity of a judge who not once made eye contact or addressed him directly. He was away from his lawyer, unable to consult with them. In another box ticking procedural rights exercise, he was appointed an interpreter, who translated the entire five-minute hearing into one sentence. Stefan was then sent straight back to prison, not knowing what had happened or been decided in the courtroom. His case may have been ‘processed’ but there was no opportunity for any engagement with the judge, no empathy, no defence.
He later learned that the purpose of the hearing was to determine whether he could be moved into house arrest. While he was still deprived of his liberty, Stefan recognised that he was in a better position than many of the men he met in prison who were from outside of the EU and did not have the support system to apply for house arrest. Many did not have the financial capacity to hire lawyers and rent an apartment to be detained in until the end of the long and cumbersome proceedings.
Stefan still had to pay for his detention out of his own pocket. He feared losing his job after having been away for so long. He was depressed and traumatised by his time in prison. He was worried about this future and the stigma of what was happening to him.
In the end, and against the advice of his lawyer, Stefan felt that the easiest way to put this whole situation behind him was to ‘rewrite’ what had happened at the football stadium. He admitted to ‘breach of the peace’ and was fined 5400 EUROS, just so that the UK would withdraw the EAW. This meant he was was effectively denied his right to a trial so that he could go home to Germany. As his lawyer, Nicola Canestrini told us: ” As a result of bad coordination by European and UK prosecutors, the client had to admit his guilt in order to get a withdrawal of the EAW.” Canestrini also notes that the EU Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation (Eurojust) is also partly responsible for the failing in Stefan’s case. The agency should have facilitated contact between the prosecutorial authorities in different countries to uphold defendants’ rights but they denied assistance because, “ it would not be appropriate to intervene in ongoing judicial proceedings”.
Stefan’s story is by no means an isolated case. One in five people detained in Europe today have not yet been to trial. Our European criminal justice systems are overburdened. So why do authorities insist on unnecessarily detaining people for months and years before they even stand trial?
What happened to Stefan was the result of multiple systemic failings in Europe’s criminal legal systems that unnecessarily damage people’s lives. Stefan was the victim of State confusion post Brexit. He was the victim of a blunt instrument, the EAW, which is disproportionately used with devastating effect. He was the victim of Europe’s penchant for detaining people before their trial, which in turn is leading to a crisis of overcrowded prisons.
Stefan should never have been detained or have experienced the long-lasting consequences of detention. No one should have to face such injustice.
*This article is based on first-hand interviews with Stefan and his lawyer. Stefan is a pseudonym.
Timeline of events
August 2017: Stefan is charged with the offence of ‘violent disorder’ for his alleged involvement in unrest at a football stadium in the UK.
July 2020: The UK issues an EAW in Stefan’s name.
January 2021: Germany refuses to extradite Stefan to the UK – a decision consistent with Germany’s blanket ban on extraditions to the UK post Brexit. The German Prosecutor deems arrest and extradition unnecessary and, in consultation with the UK authorities, opened proceedings against Stefan for the alleged offence so that he could remain in Germany. The UK fails to withdraw Stefan’s EAW so it remains in the ‘system’. No one notifies Stefan that there are ongoing proceedings or that there are any restrictions on his movements.
August 2021: Stefan is arrested in Italy. He is detained for two weeks in prison in Brescia.
September-November 2021: Stefan is placed under house arrest. For the first eight weeks, he cannot leave the house at all, despite letters from his doctor pointing out the negative impact on his health. After eight weeks, he is allowed to go out between 12-1.30pm. The police check on him a couple of times a day, sometimes in the middle of the night.
September 2021: Stefan’s lawyer in Italy tries to find a lawyer in England who will get involved in the case.
October 2021: A British lawyer is finally commissioned.
October 2021: The UK’s Crown Prosecution Service said that the mere knowledge of a trial in Germany was not enough to withdraw the EAW. If possible, the sentence should correspond to the English sentence for the crime he has been accused of and an acquittal should be ruled out. Conversely, the Hanoverian public prosecutor’s office described the accusation against Stefan “as a trifle”.
November 2021: Against his lawyer’s advice, Stefan changes his statement and pleads guilty to a different charge so that the EAW is withdrawn, and he can return to Germany. The UK withdraws the EAW against Stefan on November 13, 2021. He is released after 74 days of detention.
December 2021: Back in Germany, Stefan decides not to appeal because of the legal costs involved. He also wants to put the whole incident behind him but lives in constant fear of losing his job as a consequence of his arrest.