BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 02.12.01

Film: PAOLA BUONADONNA reports on the imminent introduction of a European arrest warrant which will allow people in Britain to be arrested and deported on the sole instructions of any judge in the European Union.

PAOLA BUONADONNA: Plane spotting - an unusual hobby perhaps but is it spying? The fight against terrorism in Europe has focused politicians' minds on the need for quick action and tough legislation. But that creates a different kind of danger for the ordinary person. The twelve British plane enthusiasts arrested in Greece appear to be the victims of a culture clash. The Greek authorities don't appreciate foreigners taking an interest in their military. After twenty-four days in custody they still haven't been charged - just one of the many stark differences between the British and the Greek justice systems. Here in Britain tough new anti-terrorism measures are being rushed through Parliament. But there's also a European law on the way which could be even more wide-ranging and has received even less scrutiny. Next week home affairs ministers from across the EU will agree the final wording for a common definition of terrorism and a European arrest warrant for all serious crimes. The following week Tony Blair and his colleagues are expected to seal the deal at a summit in Belgium. It will be the biggest step so far towards a common European justice system - yet it's hardly been discussed. GWYNETH DUNWOODY MP: These are fundamental constitutional changes. Very important changes for you and me. They should not be rushed through in this unmannerly, untimely and dangerous manner. OLIVER LETWIN MP: We want to make sure that except in the very restricted case of terrorism, we don't have an arrangement where British policeman can be sent on a mission to arrest someone for a court in another country. GRAHAM WATSON MEP: Potentially it is a very big step towards one legal and police area in the European Union and it is being done without sufficient democratic scrutiny. BUONADONNA: Another court appearance for the twelve Brits but still no resolution. For some the case of the plane-spotters is a warning bell. They argue that involving the EU in criminal law could lead to far more miscarriages of justice. DUNWOODY: It's extraordinary that they've not even been charged. I'm very concerned that a British citizen should be put in this situation in this country, which is quite possible. In other words being arrested on some very 'iffy' evidence and then presumably taken anywhere else within the European community. BUONADONNA: The Belgian summit will produce a European arrest warrant to replace lengthy extradition procedures. A judge in any EU country could order the arrest of the citizen of any other for cross-border offences without the need for evidence. It applies to a long list of crimes, ranging from terrorism, to drugs, fraud, computer hacking, even xenophobia which is not a crime in Britain. British authorities will have to arrest the suspect and hand them over within sixty days. LETWIN: This arrest warrant would have a very wide power as it's currently conceived and that would mean that somebody who was arrested for quite small offences in a place like Greece could indeed be arrested in the UK, even if the person had returned to the UK. BUONADONNA: One British lorry driver knows all about being falsely accused of a crime abroad. At a lay-by on the Belgian border he swapped trailers and picked up a sealed cargo. He thought he was carrying plastic boxes. In France he was stopped and customs officials found 128 kilos of cannabis inside. That's when his ordeal began. DAVID BENNEY: I was arrested, I was then sort of handcuffed to the wall and questioned for twenty-four hours during which I wasn't given any food or drink, then I was transferred to the police station. I was then taken to, up in front of a judge and put in prison on remand, where I spent fourteen months waiting for a trial. Everything you get from the Court or the prison is all in French and there's no official translator in prison, so you just don't know what you're signing or what you're reading. There were seventeen men to a cell of all nationalities, so you can imagine what it was like in there. MILLIE BENNEY: I did feel isolated - I nearly lost the house. I just couldn't afford to really go out there, so I had to sort of like just limit myself to like three times in that whole fourteen months. BUONADONNA: The Benney family is slowly getting back to normal. Their middle son is turning six, and this year his dad will be there to celebrate. But it's hard to forget the bitterness of the forced separation. And despite being cleared of all charges David Benney has still not received an apology or compensation. Campaigners who fought to bring his case to public attention fear they will be even busier in the future. STEPHEN JAKOBI: The Euro warrant is based on a totally false notion that all justice systems are equal and good within the European Union. It's perfectly clear that for example the Greek justice system is not as good as the Dutch or British justice system and all the governments are busy selling this great lie. BUONADONNA: This is where David Benney spent fourteen months of his life - the remand centre in Dunkirk. As a foreigner prisoner he faced enormous difficulties - getting translation, proper legal advice, and most importantly bail. None of these basic safeguards are included in the European arrest warrant as it stands despite fierce lobbying. When EU leaders sign on the dotted line in just twelve days time they won't have to take into account suggestions from the European parliament here in Brussels. Yes, MEPs were consulted but they have no power to change the proposals. Nor will the British Parliament have much say. Yes, MPs and Lords were briefed on the proposals. But when the Lords looked at the legislation recently they were only given a copy in French. And when the text is finalised on Thursday it's going to be extremely difficult for anybody to change it. Short of the government making a complete U-turn on this the European arrest warrant will be a done deal in a fortnight's time. WATSON: This is being done without adequate discussion, debate at European level and in particular without the oversight of any parliament which can propose and force through amendments to the legislation being proposed by the governments. BUONADONNA: We asked the Home Office to respond to these concerns and explain why this measure is needed now and in such a hurry. But no Home Office minister was available for interview. In a statement they acknowledged the European arrest warrant marks a step change in European co-operation. They said it's aimed at serious cross-border crime and Britain cannot afford long delays in extraditing suspects to other EU countries which are, after all, mature democracies bound by the European Convention on Human Rights. David Benney is trying to make up for lost time. But it's not easy to catch up with the lives of his children. BENNEY: You're never gonna get the years back that you've missed. I've missed an awful lot, I've missed the littlest one starting to walk and his first day at school and things like that, you know it's, you can't get it back. JAKOBI: You're alright provided you take all your holidays in Bognor Regis and you're never mistaken for somebody else overseas you'll be fine, but if you ever go for a Spanish holiday or a holiday in the Mediterranean you are at risk and it's like lightning, lightning doesn't strike often but God when it does you know about it. DUNWOODY: What is appalling is that the first that most people will know is when it is applied and if it's a high profile case there will be enormous outrage and at that point, people will say, why did you let this happen? BUONADONNA: The plane-spotters caught in Greece continue to protest their innocence. If the European arrest warrant becomes law many more bewildered Brits might find themselves being purported to a distant prison on the orders of a foreign court.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.