The trial of Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder fighting extradition from Britain to Sweden, has thrown a legal mechanism known as the European Arrest Warrant into the spotlight.
Critics say the EAW allows for unfair extraditions
Julian Assange, an Australian national, is fighting demands from Sweden that he return to face charges of sexual assault.
The case has received a great deal of publicity because of the controversial nature of Assange's work, but it has also strengthened calls for changes to the Europe-wide extradition system amid concerns that innocent people or those facing minor charges are being fast-tracked to overseas jails where they can be held for months.
Introduced in 2004, the European Arrest Warrant, or EAW, is meant to expedite the judicial process. The requesting country does not have to present evidence and there is no place for the person being charged to argue their innocence.
Assange says he was never given the chance to defend himself
According to Catherine Heard, head of policy at Fair Trials International, that needs to change.
"It is a highly streamlined system, which strips out all the old protections against unfair extradition," she said.
Holiday gone wrong
One person who knows this only too well is Andrew Symeou of the United Kingdom. During a vacation on Greek Isle of Zante in 2007, another British man, Jonathan Hiles, fell off a stage in a night club and died of his injuries two days later.
Symeou was arrested in June 2008 for allegedly hitting Hiles, causing his fall and subsequent death. However, Symeou's family insisted the paths of the two young men never crossed.
Symeou did not enter the nightclub until hours after the incident occurred, and the witness statements are riddled with inconsistencies. Two of his friends were physically coerced by police into signing statements they immediately retracted. But the British courts were not at liberty to dismiss the extradition.
Frank Symeou, Andrew's father, said that when his son was first arrested, he didn't know anything about the European Arrest Warrant.
"It came as a complete shock that we couldn't show evidence in a British court. Andrew felt let down by his country. He wasn't being protected," Frank Symeou said.
Critics say the warrants can mean long stretches in jail for innocent people
As a foreigner, Andrew Symeou was unable to get bail because he did not have a permanent address in Greece. He spent 11 months in a Greek jail, a time he described as "hellish."
"The conditions are terrifying," Andrew said in a phone interview from Athens. "The violence is the biggest problem. I saw riots, hundreds of people on the ground, beating each other."
Andrew was granted bail last year but not allowed to leave Greece. He and his family are awaiting his long-delayed trial which has now been scheduled for early March. He said he was confident that given the state of the case against him, he will be acquitted.
Room for improvement
Andrew Symeou's case is not an isolated one. In 2009, more than 4,000 people were extradited from one European country to another. Of those, 700 came from the UK. Britain and Germany are among those countries receiving the most extradition requests.
Poland, which itself has complained about the system, issues the most arrest warrants, possibly due to a law that requires every case be prosecuted.
In Britain, MPs have been holding parliamentary hearings into the issue.
European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has admitted there is room for improvement in the way the EAW works and she said that changes are being made, slowly.
However, Catherine Heard of Fair Trials International said while countries could tinker with their own laws, the original EU legislation needs to be fixed.
"We've got to have an efficient system of extradition in Europe, everybody knows that. But that doesn't meant human rights have suffer," she said.
Author: Catherine Drew (smh)
Editor: Kyle James