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Jurisdictions across Europe struggling with the presumption of innocence

admin - January 24, 2020 - Presumption of innocence

 

Despite everyone having the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, public statements of guilt, media coverage presenting the suspect as though they are guilty, and the use of restraints continue to be a problem across the world. That was one of the findings of research Fair Trials published last year, and it’s been further supported by events held in the past few months.

Late last year, Fair Trials held an event in London on the right to the presumption of innocence, hosted by Hogan Lovells. The event was an opportunity to highlight the findings of our report “Innocent until proven guilty?”, which was produced with Hogan Lovells’ assistance as part of an EU project. The event featured a pre-recorded video message from Dominic Grieve QC, former Attorney General of England and Wales, who flagged the problems not only in traditional media, but also more modern risks associated with the ubiquity of social media. It was the third in a series of events held around Europe to help highlight the threats to the essential right to be presumed innocent.

In October, over 40 Lithuanian criminal justice actors met in Vilnius at an event co-organised by Fair Trials and our JUSTICIA member Human Rights Monitoring Institute, after a series of high-profile cases, including a corruption case involving high-ranking judges and lawyers, sparked intense debates about the application of the right to be presumed innocent.

Earlier last year, 26 people, including eight top judges and five lawyers, were detained on charges of corruption. They stand accused of giving and receiving bribes, ranging from 1,000 to 10,000 euros, in exchange for favourable verdicts. The case is unique in the scale of corruption it hopes to uncover and stands out in the way that the media has been publishing leaks throughout the proceedings. According to the panellists, watching judges being taken away in handcuffs on TV was the first time the local community of judges realised the importance of presumption of innocence.

Soon after the suspects were detained, photos of their arrests were posted online by media outlets, accompanied by sensationalist reporting. “Never before seen corruption in courts”, “Courts' corruption case: a series of detentions”, and “A decade of court system changes was not enough to snuff out corruption”, read the local headlines.

Although their names were not published, readers could identify the handcuffed suspects. The panellists noted that in Lithuania, handcuffs are used only when prominent individuals are being escorted to the Vilnius district court. The directive on the presumption of innocence and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights stipulate that authorities should avoid presenting suspects or accused persons as being guilty through the use of measures of physical restraint like handcuffs unless there is a clear security risk.

Some even believe that Lithuania’s prosecution and law enforcement went after top officials in order to impress the media and appear ‘tough on corruption’, as corruption remains a concern among the majority of Lithuanians. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis wrote on Facebook: “The times of untouchables are over. Everyone has to learn the lesson.”

According to Simonas Slapšinskas, a Lithuanian lawyer we spoke to recently, over 50% of such cases eventually result in acquittal. The entire process can take several years, with some of the accused languishing in pre-trial detention for months. To protect the reputations of suspects or accused people, the panellists suggested a step-by-step code of behaviour for all criminal justice actors on how to uphold the presumption of innocence.

Lithuania and England and Wales are two very different jurisdictions, but both are facing problems which get to the very heart of the right a fair trial. Fair Trials made numerous recommendations in its recent report “Innocent until proven guilty?”. Robust laws are important, but not enough. Long-term engagement of law enforcement, legal professionals and the media is crucial, alongside broader public education, to make profound changes in law, practice and culture.

 

Read more about the presumption of innocence here.

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please call the media team on +44 (0) 7749 785 932 or email [email protected]

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