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NEWS

Unfair pre-trial detention in the EU - A shocking picture

editor - November 10, 2011

It is common in much of Europe for people accused of a criminal offence to be held in prison for months, even years, before their trial starts. Pre-trial detainees often endure extremely tough conditions, making it hard to prepare for trial. We see such cases week in, week out. Fair Trials International reports today on some of our clients' experiences awaiting justice in prisons across the European Union. Their stories include cramped, overcrowded cells shared with convicted murderers, rapes and other violent attacks in prison, riots and hunger strikes, untreated medical conditions, years spent detained thousands of miles from home and little access to legal advice or documents.

These ordeals are suffered by people not convicted of any offence. Entitled to be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty - their experiences show that pre-trial detention is, in effect, a punishment in itself and one that makes effective trial preparation well-nigh impossible. As a charity campaigning for the better protection of fair trial rights, this is of huge concern to us. There will always be cases where it is necessary to hold a suspect in custody for a certain period after arrest - for example, to ensure vital evidence is preserved or key witnesses are protected. But pre-trial detention is only acceptable where it is necessary and where no alternative is available. Even where its use is justified, those held in detention should have: decent conditions; facilities to prepare a defence; confidential communications with their lawyer; and a proper, regular review of whether detention remains necessary.

As our clients' cases show, the reality is very different. Andrew Symeou was extradited to Greece and a year-long nightmare started. He was a 20-year-old student denied release, pending trial, on the basis that he was foreign and a "flight risk" - and had not shown "remorse". He had always maintained his innocence and was held in a filthy, overcrowded cell for almost a year. Andrew was acquitted, but is unlikely to be compensated for his ordeal.

Corinna Reid was separated from her baby for two and a half years, and still there has been no trial. Her daughter was six months old, when Corinna was extradited to Spain, and had to be left in the care of family in the United Kingdom. She is now three. Though eventually released from custody, Corinna is still forbidden from leaving Spain until her trial. She has asked why she cannot be bailed back to the UK, until Spain is ready to try her. Anthony Reynolds was detained for four years without any information on the case against him. He spent four years in pre-trial detention in Spain, held under the notorious "secreto de sumario" regime in which no information is given to the suspect or his lawyer about the prosecution case - until just before trial. Anthony lost contact with his wife and daughter during his incarceration. He was finally acquitted. Robert Hörchner spent 10 months in a Polish jail, where trial preparation was impossible. He was extradited from Holland to Poland, where he was detained for 10 months in horrific conditions - suffering repeated attacks from convicted prisoners. Robert received almost no information about his case and little access to legal advice. He resisted offers of early release, if he pleaded guilty.

When the European Commission launched a green paper on detention, in June, we reviewed the pre-trial experiences of hundreds of our clients. In collaboration with international law firm Clifford Chance, we then researched the law on pre-trial detention in 15 EU member states. We also spoke to legal practitioners across Europe to find out what actually happens at detention hearings in these countries, which often contrasts markedly with what the law requires. Our report reveals that many countries allow very long periods in pre-trial detention – some up to four years. Others have no limit at all. Many have no proper system to review pre-trial detention, with judges repeatedly rubber-stamping decisions to remand the suspect in custody, without considering why it is necessary.

The EU can ill-afford to detain so many people pre-trial. Based on commission figures, it costs almost €5bn a year to hold all pre-trial detainees. It is now more urgent than ever that this problem is tackled. Under the fast-track extradition system, the European Arrest Warrant, suspects can be extradited more easily and quickly than before. Many languish for months in prison, while prosecutors drag their feet. If this continues, the mutual trust between countries that is necessary for streamlined extradition and efficient cross-border investigations will never exist. Only clear, enforceable laws setting basic standards on when, and how, pre-trial detention can be used - will force countries to stop imposing detention arbitrarily or for longer than necessary.

We are calling for new EU laws setting minimum standards for the use of pre-trial detention, to ensure that suspects are only detained when there is clear, objective justification for this - for example, to preserve evidence or ensure other suspects are not tipped off before their arrest, and that detention is regularly reviewed by impartial judicial authorities, with clear reasons given for any decision to impose or prolong detention. We are demanding effective use of alternatives to pre-trial detention, such as electronic tagging and implementation of existing EU laws to allow conditional release across borders. And we want to see deferred extradition under European Arrest Warrants, until the case is ready for trial. Europe's overuse of pre-trial detention is ruining lives and costing billions every year. The EU must wake up to this scandal and take action to tackle it.

Catherine Heard is head of policy at the Fair Trials International campaign group, in the United Kingdom 

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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