Portugal has demanded the extradition of a British man, who was cleared of attempted murder in 1995 but recently arrested without warning – another example of the deep flaws in the European Arrest Warrant system, say Fair Trials International
A 49-year-old family man and former serving soldier is the latest in a long line of people to face the terrifying prospect of being extradited for trial hundreds of miles from home, over events that took place in another European Union country many years before. Arrested under Europe's controversial fast-track extradition system, he has recently experienced the shock of being arrested at his family home without prior warning.
Graham Mitchell's case is concerning, because he was acquitted at his trial in Portugal in 1995 and told he could go home. He and a friend had been on holiday in the Algarve in 1994, when another tourist fell or was pushed off a sea wall and, tragically, was paralysed from the waist down. Graham and his friend insisted they had had nothing to do with the incident. They spent 11 months enduring tough conditions and serious ill-treatment in pre-trial detention. When they were cleared of attempted murder and released, they thought that was the end of it.
Then, police arrived at Graham's home on March 6, with a European Arrest Warrant accusing him of first degree murder. In fact, the victim of the 1994 incident is alive and is now a wheelchair-basketball star. Graham was devastated. He has worked hard to rebuild his life since the original detention and trial and has had treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. He met his wife Laura in 2004. They formed a family together with Laura's two children, to whom Graham is a loving father. One has learning disabilities and the other has Asperger's. Both children need substantial care at home, which Graham provides.
At Fair Trials International, we regularly see the troubling effects of flaws in the arrest warrant system. These flaws lead to misconceived extradition requests and severe limitations on courts' powers to refuse extradition. Our recent cases include that of Robert Hörchner, a Dutch national who was extradited from Holland to Poland, and detained for 10 months in horrific conditions, sharing a small cell with convicted murderers and mentally ill prisoners. Unable to appeal against his extradition from Holland, Robert could not present evidence to the court of the prison conditions he would face in Poland.
Meanwhile Jacek Jaskloski is a Polish grandfather and retired schoolteacher whose extradition is still sought by Poland for going over his overdraft limit more than 10 years ago. The whole debt was later repaid and he moved to Britain, which has refused to extradite him. Yet Poland will not drop the arrest warrant, meaning he cannot travel. Another case involves Deborah Dark, a British grandmother who was wanted in France for a 20-year-old conviction she knew nothing about. The French court had acquitted Deborah at trial but, unbeknown to her, there was then a prosecution appeal that she was never told about. Despite courts in both the United Kingdom and Spain ruling that it would be unjust to extradite her, France refused to remove the arrest warrant. Deborah was trapped in the UK, unable to visit her father in Spain.
In Graham Mitchell's case, the Portuguese authorities have sought to clarify matters this week, stating that Graham's acquittal was overturned and a retrial ordered, a few weeks after his trial. In an article
headed British authorities fail to locate suspect for 13 years
, it is said that the reason nothing happened after Graham's acquittal was overturned was that his whereabouts were unknown. Yet Graham has been living openly in the UK ever since his return from Portugal. He is registered with UK authorities, for example, as a security-vetted press photographer and also as a principal carer for one of his children. He also receives a war pension. It remains unclear why the decision to remit the case for retrial was not notified to Graham when it was first made.
Meanwhile, the need for arrest warrant reform is steadily gaining acceptance. European Commission vice-president Viviane Reding sees "considerable room for improvement" in its operation. MEPs debated the issue in a plenary session last June, voicing cross-party support for reform. UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recognised recently that lessons should be learned from the warrant's first eight years. He echoed the argument of prominent Liberal Democrats in Europe, notably Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP, that we cannot turn a blind eye to abuses of the arrest warrant, despite the vital role it plays in the fight against serious crime.
Fair Trials International has issued a briefing paper
setting out concrete reforms to the EU law that introduced the Arrest Warrant, including greater safeguards for fundamental rights, a proportionality test, and an obligation to remove arrest warrants once extradition has been refused. If enacted, these changes will help ensure this important tool to combat cross-border crime does not compromise fundamental rights in its operation. Catherine Heard is head of policy at Fair Trials International