Q&A: European Arrest Warrant

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The UK government wants to claw back some EU powers over justice and policing, but is likely to remain in the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) system.

The EAW is widely seen to have speeded up extradition proceedings in the EU, but there is also pressure to fix shortcomings in the system.

What is the EAW?

The EAW operates EU-wide and replaced separate extradition arrangements between the EU member states. The EAW was introduced in January 2004, and was prompted by the international anti-terror drive after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US.

A national judicial authority, such as a court, can issue an EAW to get a suspect extradited. For an EAW to be valid, the suspect must be accused of an offence incurring a maximum penalty of at least a year in prison, or must have been already sentenced to at least four months in prison.

The EAW means faster and simpler surrender procedures for suspects. EU states can no longer refuse to extradite one of their citizens on grounds of nationality. Extradition no longer requires a political decision for a suspect to be handed over. The EAW means mutual recognition of criminal justice systems in the EU.

How much faster are extradition proceedings now?

Before the EAW was introduced extradition used to take an average of one year, but now that has been cut to an average of 48 days, the European Commission says. A suspect must be handed over within a maximum of 90 days after arrest. In cases where a suspect agrees to surrender the average extradition time is 16 days.

How many EAWs are issued and how many suspects handed over?

Figures for 2009 show that 15,827 EAWs were issued in total and of those 4,431 were executed. The breakdown, given in a European Commission report, shows that Poland issued the most EAWs - 4,844. Of those, fewer than half were executed - 1,367. Germany was second for the number of EAWs issued - 2,433, then Romania with 1,900. The figures for the UK were: 220 issued, 80 executed.

What are the arguments for EAWs?

A senior British police officer, Commander Allan Gibson, says the EAW has brought a big increase in extradition and has reduced delays and costs. Cmdr Gibson, of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), says the EAW has been a great help in cross-border operations against organised crime, such as joint UK-Czech and UK-Romanian action against people traffickers. In the UK, regional police forces can now issue EAWs, whereas previously extradition cases were all handled in London.

There have been some high-profile successes for the EAW. Fugitive teacher Jeremy Forrest, who fled to France with a schoolgirl, was extradited to England on an EAW issued in September 2012. In 2005 an EAW enabled the UK to quickly extradite from Italy a fugitive bomber, Hussain Osman, who with accomplices had attempted to carry out a terror attack in London. In 2012 a murderer, Jason McKay, was arrested in Warsaw and sent back to the UK within a month.

What are the criticisms of EAWs?

There has been much debate about proportionality - that is, the need to use EAWs only for the most serious crimes. In a debate on EU justice and policing Cmdr Gibson and Jodie Blackstock of the human rights group Justice said Poland had sent too many EAW requests to the UK.

A report by the campaign group Fair Trials International in May 2011 said EAWs "are being issued for minor offences and without proper consideration of whether extradition is proportionate". That concern was echoed by the European Commission, which said the use of EAWs for minor offences had undermined confidence in the system.

Fair Trials International also complained that suspects were "not being provided with legal representation in the issuing state as well as the executing state". According to Ms Blackstock, more needs to be done to ensure effective legal defence for suspects in cross-border cases. Often the defence lawyers are young and inexperienced in such cases, she says.

Baroness Sarah Ludford, a Lib Dem MEP specialising in EU justice issues, says EU justice officials should exercise more peer pressure on each other to prevent abuses of the EAW. If somebody has been cleared of charges they should be removed from the EAW alert system, she argues.

In one high-profile miscarriage of justice Deborah Dark, a British woman, was pursued across Europe because of an EAW issued by France, although she had been cleared of drug charges years previously.

Can a country refuse to execute an EAW?

Yes. There is the double jeopardy principle - a suspect will not be returned to the country that issued the EAW if he or she has already been tried for the same offence abroad. A refusal can be justified if an EU state's amnesty covers the offence in question. A refusal can also be justified under a statute of limitations - that is, if a time limit has passed for prosecution. And a state can reject an EAW if under its laws the suspect is a minor, below the age of criminal responsibility.

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