EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – The EU arrest warrant scheme under which WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is set to be extradited to Sweden is a “threat to human rights,” as it is often abused with harsh consequences for the lives of the people concerned, Europe’s chief human rights defender Thomas Hammarberg said Tuesday (15 March).
“The request made by Sweden to the United Kingdom for the surrender of the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, put the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) in the headlines,” said Hammarberg, who is the high commissioner for human rights with the Council of Europe, a Strasbourg-based intergovernmental organisation.
Created in 2002 as a “fast-track extradition scheme” for persons suspected or convicted of serious crimes, the European arrest warrant is in fact used mostly for minor offences and has resulted in a number of cases being brought before the European Court of Human Rights.
“The problems appear to have worsened with the increase of the number of EAWs – there are now an average of more than one thousand per month, the overwhelming majority of which relate to minor crimes,” Hammarberg noted.
He cited the imprisonment of innocent persons, disproportionate arrests, violations of procedural rights and the impossibility in some countries for an innocent person to appeal against a decision.
Since the only condition for carrying out the extradition is that the suspect must be accused of a crime carrying a minimum prison sentence of 12 months, judges in the home country of the suspect have few means to verify how justified the charges are.
“There is a need to strengthen the human rights safeguards in EAW procedures,” he stressed, especially since the system “affects thousands of persons every year.”
Catherine Heard from Fair Trials International, a British charity offering legal assistance to people arrested in other countries, said that her group has long time documented EAW abuses.
“We have seen the lives and futures of many ordinary people – teachers, firemen, chefs and students –blighted by the European Arrest Warrant, a system that infringes basic rights and fails to deliver a fair and efficient extradition system,” she said in a press statement, welcoming Hammarberg’s remarks.
In the case of Gary Mann, a fireman who was extradited to serve a two-year prison sentence for alleged hooliganism in Portugal, British courts stated that the warrant was an “embarrassment” to the UK and Portugal, said “serious injustice” had occurred, and that his trial in Portugal breached his basic fair trial rights.
A review of the way the EU arrest warrant has been implemented since 2002 is currently being worked on in the European Commission, with proposals for improvement likely to be published early April, a spokesman for justice commissioner Viviane Reding told this website.
The scheme is unlikely to be scrapped, however, meaning that for WikiLeaks chief Assange, the extradition will still have to be carried out.
Last month, a British judge has ruled that Assange can be extradited to Sweden to be tried on charges of harassing and raping two women. His lawyers have filed an appeal saying Assange could face extradition to the United Sates, imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay and even the death penalty. The appeal is still pending.