Europe investigates UK police

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Mounting complaints over the failure to discipline or to prosecute police officers found to have ill-treated suspects has prompted the first investigation of UK police complaints procedures by the Council of Europe's committee for the prevention of torture.

The committee, appointed under the 1987 European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (ECPT), which has been signed by 35 states, begins the investigation today. Because it is an ad hoc inquiry, British police and criminal justice authorities would have been given only limited notice of the visit.

It follows the three successful High Court challenges in July - two concerning deaths in custody and one involving torture - against Dame Barbara Mills, the Director of Public Prosecutions, which resulted in controls on Crown Prosecution Service decisions over death-in-custody or ill-treatment prosecutions of police officers.

But the committee, known as the CPT, is expected to carry out a broader- ranging investigation into police discipline, including an examination of why significant numbers of police officers escape disciplinary charges, despite jury awards of damages to claimants in civil cases for assault, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment.

The delegation, which includes Claude Nicolay, who heads the committee, and members from the Netherlands and Cyprus, has powers under the convention to request files and access to anyone who can provide information. The committee members are expected to seek inspection of documents at the Metropolitan Police, the Police Complaints Authority and the Crown Prosecution Service.

The convention also allows for periodic visits, of which there have been two to the UK mainland in 1990 and 1994.

Two of the High Court challenges involved Shiji Lapite, who died in police custody after his larynx was crushed by an officer, and Derek Treadaway, whom a judge found had been tortured by officers putting plastic bags over his head. Raju Bhatt, the solicitor who brought the two cases, said: "I hope that what the committee would be looking at is the virtual immunity police officers enjoy."