25th Oct 2016

MEPs: EU-wide arrest warrant needs deep reform

  • Member states issued 54,689 European arrest warrants between 2005 and 2009, leading to 11,630 suspects being surrendered (Photo: A.Currell)

Stories of innocent people trapped in another member states’ judicial system are putting pressure on the European Commission to revise its pan-EU extradition rules.

The Strasbourg chamber on Thursday (27 February) backed a proposal by a wide margin for the Brussels-executive to review the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) and introduce measures to prevent its abuse by issuing states.

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“I want to make sure there are not miscarriages of justice with people being on pre-trial detention for, in one case, 15 months,” British Liberal MEP Sarah Ludford told this website.

Ludford, who steered the parliament’s file on the EAW, wants the commission to table proposals for reform within the next year. A key idea is to allow member states to refuse an extradition request if they suspect it would breach the human rights of the accused.

A brainchild of a post-9/11 EU, when the parliament had no co-decision powers, the EAW requires national authorities to carry out another member state’s request to extradite suspects.

Praised for its effectiveness in catching criminals on the run, the warrant has also drawn severe criticism by pro-rights groups for ensnaring innocents in an unforgiving system.

Poor judicial standards in some member states and others who issue them for minor offences like stealing bicycles or tyres have in some cases turned innocent people into victims.

“These have included suspects torn from their homes and families for minor crimes, or imprisoned for months on end before their trial even starts,” said Jago Russell, chief executive at the London-based NGO Fair Trials International, of which Ludford is a patron.

Others, who have been exonerated, remain entrapped in a system whose core the European Commission is reluctant to reform.

Twenty-six year old Polish national Natalia Gorczowska told EUobsever she still gets stopped by the border police whenever she travels.

“They stop me every time for like half an hour because they say I am still on the warrant list and then they let me go,” she says.

Gorczowska was arrested in Poland when she was 17 for possessing a small quantity of amphetamines. She left for the UK a year later where she overcame her addiction, got a job, and had a child.

An extradition for her arrest was issued because she had not informed her parole officer she had left the country. She faced a ten-month prison sentence in Poland because of it.

“It was a terrible, I thought I was in a bad dream. I was crying everyday because I thought I would lose my son,” said the single mother.

Gorczowska’s case was dropped after a legal battle. She now carries a slip of paper, an interim injunction from the European Court of Human Rights, whenever she returns to Poland to visit family.

EU commissioner for justice Viviane Reding, for her part, told the assembly on Wednesday that it would be pre-mature to re-open the European arrest warrant.

“The European Arrest Warrant is Europe's most successful criminal justice instrument,” said Reding.

Reding pointed out other EU laws like the right to interpretation and translation and access to a lawyer provide a counter balance to its abuse.

The gap of abuse is wide because not all member states have transposed the complementary laws, she noted.

There are other concerns.

Insiders worry member states may be tempted to roll-back and weaken the text if the commission tables the reforms.

The MEPs insist attempts must be made to prevent other cases like Gorczowska, or worse, from being repeated.

Ludford’s non-binding proposal requires courts to make sure the case is trial ready, allows national authorities to refuse the warrant on possible human right violations, and ensures other less intrusive instruments like the European investigation order would be better suited.

The investigation order, which MEPs also backed on Thursday, makes it easier for investigators to gather evidence in other member states.

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