After years of debate and countless high-profile cases of injustice, the British government has today announced a package of reforms to the UK's extradition arrangements. The devil, as ever, will be in the detail, but the reforms promise to address many of the major problems with the UK's extradition cases, while also ensuring the UK has the effective extradition arrangements it needs to tackle serious cross-border crime.
US/UK extradition cases have dominated the British headlines with repeated criticisms of the treaty between the two countries for being biased in favour of the US. The Home Secretary rejected these claims today. On the face of it, there is inequality but in practice this does not seem to be having a significant impact.
The bigger issue, by far, in these US/UK cases is the question of why people are being sent to the US to face trial rather than being prosecuted in British courts. The growth of international travel and communications means many alleged crimes can be tried in more than one country and difficult decisions need to be made by prosecutors about who takes responsibility for the case. At present, these decisions (which have massive implications for the people concerned) are currently being made behind closed doors. As a result suspicion has grown that the US is using its diplomatic weight to demand long-arm jurisdiction over cases that should be tried in the UK. As the Home Secretary accepted today, we need a more principled and transparent approach to deciding the forum for trial.
We are also pleased that the courts look set to be given a back-stop power to refuse extradition when the country seeking it is clearly that the wrong place to hear the case. We would not expect this to be a common occurrence, but hope that the fact that prosecutors' decisions could be scrutinised in court will improve the quality of their decision-making.
The Home Secretary has also promised to hand over to the courts her current power to prevent extradition on human rights grounds in some cases. In principle, we welcome this step: decisions on individual cases are best taken by independent courts in a transparent fashion after hearing all the evidence. However, if this safeguard is to be effective, courts must be willing to use it in appropriate cases. Sadly, we have seen many cases in recent years where the courts have shown reluctance to use their existing powers to refuse extradition, even where serious human rights concerns exist.
The number of extraditions to the US is, however, small: eight people were extradited from the UK to the US last year. By contrast, in 2011, 999 people were extradited from the UK to other European countries under the EU's fast-track European Arrest Warrant system. Not only are the numbers much higher (due, in part, to the vast number of requests by a few countries, including Poland) but there are even fewer safeguards against misuse of this system.
The cases of injustice under the Arrest Warrant may not have received the same level of public attention as the US cases, but they are far more numerous and just as severe. For example, Andrew Symeou, a young man from North London, was extradited to Greece in July 2009 to face charges in connection with the death of a young man on a Greek island. He was extradited long before the Greek court was ready to try him, and endured almost a year in terrible prison conditions before being granted "local" bail in Greece. Andrew was finally cleared by a Greek court in June 2011, almost four years after the events in question.
The Home Secretary's recognition today that the European Arrest Warrant requires improvement is, therefore, particularly welcome. In particular, she recognised the need to stop abuse of the Arrest Warrant for trivial offences and to end excessive pre-trial detention of those who have been extradited and await trial. She announced that, in the coming months, the Government will be working with the European Commission and other EU countries to seek agreement on reform of the Arrest Warrant. We hope that they succeed.
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