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 Euro Parliament ruling means Britons could be convicted in absence

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Location : Glasgow
Registration date : 2008-09-03

PostSubject: Euro Parliament ruling means Britons could be convicted in absence   Thu Sep 04, 2008 3:15 am

Britons tried abroad in their absence will be automatically deported to serve their sentence under planned new European laws.

The refinements to the controversial European Arrest Warrant system means a British citizen can be arrested and sent to prison elsewhere in Europe even if they never knew they had been charged with a crime.

The new rules on defendants tried in their absence will apply to an extensive range of crimes, running from the most serious offences such as murder and rape to crimes such as 'racism and xenophobia' which are entirely unrecognised in British law.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw has given British backing to the new extradition laws on the grounds that it will improve 'mutual trust' among the 27 EU countries.

The scheme was given a vote of confidence at the European Parliament today in advance of final approval by national governments later this year.

But Tories said it would undermine the right of an accused individual to defend himself in a trial, and lawyers warned of the risk of serious miscarriages of justice.

Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve called the plan 'alarming' and added: 'Allowing British nationals to be extradited to face prison in European jails, based on trials in absentia, is simply not compatible with the principles of British Justice."'

The European Arrest Warrant system went into operation four years ago - with full British backing - despite deep fears among opposition politicians and among lawyers over its implications.

It allows EU countries to demand the extradition of suspects from other EU states without any formal extradition proceedings or court hearings.

But EU countries including Britain still have the right to refuse to hand over a suspect demanded by another state if the country making the request has already put the suspect on trial and convicted them in their absence.

The new 'trial in absentia initiative' will insist that the suspect is delivered to the country that has tried them - on the basis of a request made through a tick-box form.

The state making the request will have only to demonstrate that the suspect was informed of the trial in their absence - a legal condition that does not mean the individual had to be told in person.

Alternatively, the country demanding extradition can offer an appeal to the person who has already been tried.

The rules are likely to be used by countries like Greece, which has been involved in hotly-contested prosecutions of Britons in recent years, and Eastern European states like Romania where police and justice systems are widely considered to be mired in corruption.

Britain has held trials in absentia since 2001, but they are unusual and allowed only under strictly controlled legal conditions.

A spokesman for Mr Straw's Justice Ministry said: 'The initiative will ensure that there is clarity as to when the courts of one member state recognise a decision taken by another member statein a person's absence.

'This will help ensure that a person cannot escape justice by fleeing to another member state, whilst also ensuring that persons are only returned where to do so is appropriate - for example where there will be a retrial.'

But Mr Grieve said: 'This is another alarming development the Government have conceded to.'

MEP Philip Bradbourn, the Tory European Parliament home affairs spokesman, said: 'This proposal goes against one of the most fundamental cornerstones of British justice - that the accused has a right to defend himself at trial.'

Pieter Cleppe, a European lawyer at the Open Europe think tank, said: 'We believe that mutual recognition instruments such as the European Arrest Warrant must not be allowed to undermine long-established traditions of fundamental rights.

'This proposal could open the door to serious miscarriages of justice and ministers should not be supporting it.'
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