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EU Rules Out Central Criminal Register

Ruth Reichstein (dc/win)July 19, 2004

EU justice and interior ministers agreed to step up information exchanges on national criminal records, but stopped short of creating a single criminal register for the entire 25-nation bloc.

The debate was prompted by the confessions of killer FourniretImage: dpa

Germany, France and Spain all agreed they would speed up plans to share data on convicted criminals by electronically linking their national registers. In a statement, they said that the network could serve as a model for a future system linking all criminal registers in Europe.

The discussion over a common register of convicted murderers or sex offenders was sparked by the case of Michel Fourniret, a French forest warden who confessed to nine murders on both sides of the Franco-Belgian border. The 62-year-old was given a job at a school in Belgium despite a rape conviction in France because no one in Belgium knew of his criminal record.

Despite the shock-waves caused by Fourniret's confessions, ministers at Monday's debate in Brussels decided to cooperate better with existing national registers, rather than create a brand new EU register.

The European Commission is drafting proposals to boost information exchanges and has said it wants EU states to support plans to network national registers of serious offenders such as murderers and pedophiles.

Fourniret could have been stopped

The Fourniret case surfaced shortly after Belgian Marc Dutroux was sentenced to life in prison for the abuse and murder of several young girls. While the Dutroux case highlighted embarrassing inefficiencies within the Belgian police system, the Fourniret case focused attention on the cooperation of European judicial systems across borders.

Some experts say the worst could have been prevented if French investigators had passed on more information about Fourniret to their Belgian counterparts: In the late 1980s, Fourniret was convicted of raping minors and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

He was only behind bars for a few months, but his criminal record was serious. Despite this, Fourniret managed to get a job as a supervisor in a school kitchen after moving to Belgium.

That's horrifying proof that European law enforcement and judicial systems don't cooperate well, according to "Childfocus," a Belgian organization that searches for missing children.

"It's not normal, that France didn't keep investigating Fourniret after his release," said Isabelle Marneffe, the organization's spokeswoman. "France didn't warn her European partners. That's why someone with a criminal record in a neighboring country was able to obtain a clean record in Belgium. Something's clearly wrong here."

Records don't cross borders

Currently, law enforcement officers are not required to pass on information about released criminals to neighboring countries unless the latter specifically request this.

On the other hand, there is no law requiring prosecutors to acquire information from other countries if a suspect used to reside there. In other words: Criminal records don't cross European borders.

"I believe that you have to keep records of previous crimes for much longer in order to be truly effective in combating sexual offenses," said Cedric Visart de Bocarme, the man charged with prosecuting Fourniret. He added that this should also be the case if a criminal moves to a different European country. "It would help investigations tremendously if international cooperation would be better organized."

National sovereignty at issue

Prior to Monday's debate, several countries voiced their concern over such a central register. Germany, for example, said that it would be an infringement on national sovereignty.

Pietro Petrucci, the EU Commission spokesman, said he still hoped that a universal criminal register would be introduced. It's sad, but Europe needs tragedies such as the Fourniret case to move forward, he said.

"Political advances often require something shocking," he said, adding that Europe needed the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks before it felt obliged to introduce a European arrest warrant.