The European Arrest Warrant speeds up the process of extradition between EU member states. In so doing, could it be jeopardising due process across the continent? Kassandra asks whether the EAW has led to human rights abuses.

Since its introduction in 2004, the European Arrest Warrant has removed the political and administrative phases of decision-making from the extradition process. This has allowed for a highly simplified and faster procedure for the transfer of criminals between member states.

However, simplicity and speed come at a cost. Some cases we have investigated show that worryingly, the EAW has been used to violate basic human rights in the pursuit of politically-motivated arrests and trials.

Take the case of Andrew Symeou, who was extradited from the UK to Greece in 2009, following a trial in which evidence was allegedly gathered under duress. Symeou spent a year in the rather tough Korydallos high-security prison. In 2011, it was found that Symeou was not guilty. Years of pain, isolation, and tragedy are the human price that he and his family paid for the ease and the speed of the extradition system.

If the EAW is issued as the result of a conviction ruling in an EU court, there is a presumption that the trial was fair and the conviction genuine. The EAW therefore relies upon the assumption that all judicial systems across the EU are equal – that all judicial systems are fair in one another’s eyes. In the words of the European Commission, the EAW depends upon ‘a high level of mutual trust’ between countries.

Such trust should not exist. According to Fair Trials, an NGO that is supported by the European Commission, it should not exist since ‘across Europe, basic rights are being violated every day in police stations, court rooms and prisons’. A few years ago, when asked to testify before the Home Affairs Select Committee, British MP Dominic Raab, who is now the Minister for Courts and Justice across Europe, described how the system has become unworkable due to ‘the false assumption of common standards across the EU’.

These may sound like theoretical imperfections, but they lead to genuine human rights abuses. The gulf that exists between Europe’s different justice systems is exposed time and again by the legal yet unscrupulous arrest warrant system.

Take, for example, the Romanian justice system. In 2016, among all 47 Council of Europe member states, Romania ranked third behind only Russia and Turkey for the number of cases referred to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found to have violated the right to a fair trial (71 cases, the highest of any EU member state).

This discrepancy between the Romanian justice system and those elsewhere in the EU is a problem outside the courtroom as well.

The ECtHR recently ruled that there was ‘a structural dysfuntion specific to the Romanian prison system’. It is a problem of which Romania’s law makers are well aware. In October 2016, it was revealed that Romania’s Minister of Justice, Raluca Pruna, had lied to the ECtHR. She claimed her government had pledged €1bn to the construction of new prisons, a claim she was later forced to admit was knowingly false. So much for the mutual trust upon which the EAW depends.

Perhaps most worryingly with regard to the EAW, the scales of justice are being overwhelmingly tipped in the direction of the countries whose legal and human rights standards are the least defensible. Brussels-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers found that in 2015-16, there were 1,508 extradition requests issued by Romania to the UK. In the other direction there were only 6.

As New Europe highlighted last week, the principal reason for abuses within Romania’s judiciary is the influence held over it by the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) and its National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA).

On the one hand, SRI generals infiltrate and allegedly manipulate the judiciary. Just last week, Dana Girbovan, Head of the Romanian National Union of Judges (UNJR) published a worrying post on Facebook, detailing how ‘the situation is worse than anyone can imagine, with SRI agents giving instructions about how criminal investigations should be pursued and tried, to influence the course of justice.’

On the other hand, the DNA undermines judicial process through indictments without evidence, convictions before trial, and media smear campaigns.

The most high-profile examples of DNA-led extradition cases are only cause for further alarm.

One such example is the case of Gabriel Popoviciu, a Romanian businessman awaiting his extradition hearing. In August 2017, an EAW was issued for Popoviciu’s arrest after the DNA decided to revive charges against him that had been dismissed by Romania’s Public Prosecutor in 2008.

The case had been thrown out for good reason: there was no evidence of wrongdoing, nor any evidence to justify a formal investigation.

Indeed, some evidence that had been put forward came from a witness who later retracted his initial allegations, only to then withdraw his retractions under threat of prosecution for perjury. Even in its earliest stages, Popoviciu’s trial was showing symptoms of the external influence that has become commonplace in Romania’s courts – and that, through the abuse of the EAW, is being allowed to extend across the continent.

When his case was reopened, Popoviciu was arrested and detained in breach of the right to liberty. These violations were, incidentally, identified not in the Romanian courts but only upon appeal to the ECtHR.

In the ensuing and ongoing process, Popoviciu’s lawyers have complained of a trial and subsequent conviction that do not comply with basic fair trial rights standards and due process.

A report by the Henry Jackson Society noted how tactics such as these, and the political motivations that often lie behind them, ‘show a considerable degree of continuity with the country’s pre-democratic past’.

These tactics are reminiscent of the darkest chapters in European history. Today, every EU member state can be made complicit in them through the regular abuse of the EAW.

The EU’s legal system is supposed to be the gold standard worldwide – according to the most recent Rule of Law Index, 8 of the 10 countries where justice most consistently prevails are European. However, the EAW poses a serious threat to that standard.