“Freedom of the person under the protection of the habeas corpus I deem [one of the] essential principles of our government.” So said Thomas Jefferson in his inaugural address as president on the United States in 1801. Indeed it is, and this foundation of liberty was recognised as early as the Magna Carta of 1215 in England. Which is why the current debate in England about the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) is so important. After all why, with our unequalled history of the protection on the liberty of the subject, would we agree to allow our citizens to be whisked away on the say so of some foreign magistrate without checking the evidence? Why indeed.
And the view of Poland? As variable as the weather, as only a reasonable woman can be. On the one hand, Poland’s prime minister, Ewa Kopacz thinks that “Polish citizens, especially in cases of crimes where the statute of limitations has run out, should not be subject to extradition.” She was responding to journalists seeking a comment on the request from the United States to arrest film director Roman Polanski who was in Warsaw to attend the opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The attempt failed largely, it appears, because the petition to detain him pending extradition proceedings was not submitted in Polish as required, rather than because of some higher regard for the liberty of the citizen. The US has for years been attempting to force Polanski to appear before a Los Angeles court to be sentenced for a conviction relating to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor dating from 1978, although the woman concerned has long since said that she forgives him and has no wish to see the case taken any further.
On the other hand, Poland doesn’t hold back when it comes to extraditing its own citizens from elsewhere, particularly where the EAW is concerned. In the four years from 2009 to 2013, Poland issued 3090 EAWs to the UK which is almost twice the total number issued by the next nine countries on the list (from 438 from Lithuania, 265 from Czech down to 88 from The Netherlands). This does not, necessarily, mean that Poles are more disposed to crime than others but that there are more Poles than others in the UK and that the Polish authorities are rather keener than others to issue EAWs and for less serious crimes. Conversely the UK issued 24 EAWs to Poland and even in the case of Spain, to where many UK villains have traditionally fled, only 130 EAWs were issued.
But, as Steve Jobs might have said, there is one more thing. Howard Riddle, the senior district judge and chief magistrate in England and Wales, said his counterparts in Poland had admitted that the current situation regarding EAWs “works rather well from their point of view”. Riddle told the House of Lords select committee investigating extradition law that time spent by foreign suspects on remand in Britain is deducted from their sentence at home – effectively saving money for their home country – something which Polish authorities find rather attractive. And, of course, the more EAWS are contested and the longer the delay in the process, the better unless, of course, you are the hapless UK taxpayer. Yet another reason why the UK should remove itself from this system.
Be that as it may, the depressingly familiar refrain is being heard from the UK Home Secretary that the EAW is essential lest the UK become haven for criminals or the authorities be hampered in the fight against terrorism. Nonsense, of course, and try telling that the King family who found themselves subject to an EAW issued by the UK for the heinous crime of seeking better treatment abroad for their cancer afflicted child. And the government also seems quite happy to see British citizens extradited under the EAW in circumstances where countries with a less happy record of protecting the liberty of the individual are prepared to halt the process. Which is to say nothing of the abuses under the US-UK extradition treaty.
Alas, we live in a depressing time for our liberties when governments who should know better (the US and the UK) seek, in the name of protecting them, lock them away where we can’t actually get to them. As Edmund Burke reminds us: “bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny”, and “the greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.”