MEPs demand human rights safeguard clause in European arrest warrant

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The European Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee will present recommendations on the European arrest warrant (EAW) today (27 November), asking for more clarity and an explicit clause on human rights protection, in a move aimed at reassuring dissatisfied countries such as the UK.

As the tenth anniversary of the European arrest warrant approaches, the Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee is pushing for a broad reform of a system that has attracted much criticism.

A few years ago British public opinion was shocked by the story of a young Englishman, Andrew Symeou, who was extradited to Greece on homicide charges, and spent almost four years in Greek prisons in appalling conditions. He was finally acquitted but the events triggered a hot debate in the UK on the loopholes of the European arrest warrant.

The MEP's ten most pressing concerns are spelled out at the beginning of a report authored by Sarah Ludford, a British liberal MEP.

Their demands start with a call to introduce “an explicit ground for refusal [of extradition] based on the infringement or risk of infringement of human rights”.

As it is now, the text of the arrest warrant merely states that extraditions should not “undermine” fundamental rights, but MEPs want a more proactive position that would explicitly allow a country to refuse an extradition if it endangers the rights or the integrity of a person.

“Nowhere does the EAW empower member state which receive a request for extradition to refuse it because of human rights concerns,” Ludford told journalists.

Shattered lives

The draft report on the review of the EAW identifies the poor conditions in detention facilities and the extensive periods of pre-trial detentions, which exist in a number of EU member states, as serious shortcomings.

MEPs are particularly concerned by the lack of automatic linkage between the Schengen Information System (SIS) and the EAW, which has led to absurd situations.

One such example is Deborah Dark, a British citizen who was tried in absentia by a French tribunal on drug charges in 1989, and was arrested and detained three times across Europe because she was still on the SIS list, even though the extradition had been refused by both the UK and Spain. Mrs. Dark has had serious post-traumatic stress disorder since then.

“If one member state refuses an extradition on grounds of a breach of fundamental rights, that should lead to an automatic withdrawal from the SIS list, there should be mutual recognition,” Ludford claimed.

The draft report focuses on the possibility to introduce a “eurobail” allowing convicted persons to return to their country of residence until they are brought back for judgment to the country of trial.

MEPs also warn against the misuse of the EAW in minor offences and demand more clarity when persons are called in for questioning, not as suspects but as witnesses. For Ludford, such situations could be solved through video conferences and statements rather than by treating people as accused persons.

Reviewing, not renegotiating

The draft report has received a broad support in the Civil Liberties Committee, Ludford told journalists, adding she hopes to provide answers to member states and public opinion about the shortcomings of the euro-warrant.

Britain, and the UK Conservatives in particular, have complained vocally against the euro-warrant. Abuses and miscarriages of justice due to the system's lack of clarity have given Eurosceptic parties ammunition to criticise EU judicial cooperation.

However, Ludford warns against the temptation to renegotiate the whole system, saying it could “open a Pandora’s box” and leave Europe with a much worse settlement. Moreover, a complete renegotiation would give the UK an opportunity to opt-out from the EAW altogether, Ludford warns, saying she is opposed to the idea.

“The European Arrest Warrant is a crucial crime-fighting tool, essential for police efforts to keep the public safe," Ludford said.

"However, it is in need of reform to ensure that individual rights are not overridden. My report seeks to achieve such reform with EU-wide support rather than through ad hoc and uncoordinated action by various Member States. The EAW needs to be used not only effectively but also proportionality and with guarantees that safeguards are respected and human rights are not abused in the process”, the rapporteur said.

Timeline: 
  • Early December: Deadline for amendments to the draft report by Sarah Ludford
  • 1 Jan. 2014: Tenth anniversary of the entry into force of the European Arrest Warrant
  • Jan. 2014: Vote in Committee
  • March 2014: Vote in Plenary
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