In the EU, One in Five People in Prison Haven’t Yet Been Found Guilty of Any Crime
By Alex Mik
Article Six of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which all European Union member states subscribe, asserts that “everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time.” Yet over 120,000 people are currently being held in pretrial detention in the EU. That’s one in five people in prison who haven’t yet been found guilty of any crime.
The annual cost of pretrial detention in Europe is €4.8 billion, but the true costs aren’t monetary. In the film above, we recount the stories of three individuals whose lives have been severely impacted by unjust pretrial detention. The film is part of a two-year research project coordinated by Fair Trials, which featured project partners from 10 countries across the EU.
Despite clear laws and policies to the contrary, pretrial detention is frequently being used as a first resort rather than a last one. Our research illustrates the human toll of indefinite detention without a trial or even a pretrial hearing. Many detainees will eventually be cleared, but in the process, will have lost so much: their jobs, their homes, their families, and, often, months or years of their lives.
Maciej Dobrowolski was arrested in a dawn raid and detained for over three years while awaiting trial. He was charged with smuggling marijuana from the Netherlands to Poland, a charge based solely on the testimony of a single witness, with no physical evidence. He maintains his innocence, and his case is ongoing.
“It was shocking to me. … I had never had anything to do with drugs and suddenly I was some kind of narco,” he says. “I only knew prisons from TV shows and films. When I came to Mokotov prison … it was overwhelming.”
Maciej was eventually released on bail, largely due to a widespread public campaign. At the time of this writing, he is required to report regularly to the police, which he has done without fail. He is still awaiting a trial date.
“The first three to four months are the hardest. It was very, very hot, you couldn’t breathe, and we had a lot of bugs of all shapes and sizes. We had eight beds, but at some points, there were 16 people, meaning we were sleeping two in a bed,” says Daniela, a Romanian who found herself in pretrial detention, having been accused of fraud. “I’ve seen so many things that I think … nothing can scare me anymore.”
In theory, detainees like Daniela should have regular reviews to determine whether an alternative measure might be more appropriate than detention. In reality, she explains, this isn’t always the case. “I never participated during the hearings. The only time I appeared before the court was when the pretrial detention was being prolonged. I was never asked anything. Never.”
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) later ruled that her right to liberty was violated [link in French] because “the authorities had failed to ensure the applicant’s adequate participation and effective defense in the proceedings on appeal against detention.”
Daniela was detained for one year and nine months. She was eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing. While in detention, her father died. As a pretrial detainee, she was not allowed to attend his funeral, a right she would have been afforded as a convicted prisoner. “The moment I found I would be released, I called my cousin in Bucharest and he came with a car and took me straight to my son, who was living with my parents,” says Daniela. “My son ran away from me when he saw me. My father had died. And my mother was crying.”
In 97 percent of the case files studied by Fair Trials in Romania—research conducted in conjunction with the Association for the Defence of Human Rights in Romania–the Helsinki Committee (APADOR-CH)—detention was ordered based in part on the severity of the alleged crime. This contradicts the jurisprudence of the ECHR, which stipulates that detention should be used only as a last resort. But as Georgiana Gheorghe from APADOR-CH explains, “Judges are reluctant to use other alternatives to pretrial detention, as they are not quite sure how they are implemented in practice, and they do not think of them as effective as pretrial detention.”
Daniela’s case was taken to the ECHR for three human rights violations relating to the right to liberty and the right to a fair trial. She won. As APADOR-CH noted, “The case is illustrative of the superficial manner in which judges and national courts order pretrial detention and review pretrial detention orders.”
Our research is just the starting point for a much-needed conversation about pretrial detention practices across Europe. Indeed, Vera Jourova, the EU commissioner responsible for justice, has reaffirmed her commitment to legislation around the issue, but it will not be easy. Ending unjustified pretrial detention will require a variety of solutions, including properly trained defense lawyers, clearer legal rules that are easier to apply and enforce, and the development of fair and workable alternatives to detention. Crucially, these must be adapted to local needs and challenges.
Fair Trials International is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.