Law Report: Risk of prejudice in French trial not shown

LAW REPORT: 27 June 1997
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Re Ramda, Re Boutarfa; Queen's Bench Divisional Court (Lord Justice Pill and Mr Justice Astill) 25 June 1997

Evidence purporting to demonstrate hostility in France towards Algerian Muslims, and of a media campaign following an outbreak of bombing in France, was not sufficent to show a risk of prejudice by reason of race, religion, nationality or political opinions at the trial for terrorist offences of two men whose extradition was sought by the French Government.

The applicants each sought a writ of habeas corpus. Orders had been made for their return to France following a request by the French government for their extradition. Boutarfa had dual French and Algerian nationality, and Ramda had Algerian nationality. They were accused of offences connected with terrorism. In the second half of 1995 bombings and attempted bombings had occurred in Paris and elsewhere in France. Another man had been arrested and had implicated both applicants.

Ben Emmerson (B.M. Birnberg & Co) for the applicants; James Lewis (CPS) for the Governor of Bellmarsh Prison and the Government of France.

Lord Justice Pill said that it had been submitted for the applicants that if they were returned to France they might be prejudiced at their trial by reason of their race, religion or political opinion or, in the case of Ramda his nationality, within the meaning of those terms in section 6(l)(d) of the Extradition Act 1989.

A body of material had been placed before the court which sought to demonstrate that there was overwhelming evidence of widespread intolerance and racism in France towards Algerian Muslims which had been inflamed by the press, both generally, and in relation to the applicants and the offences they were alleged to have committed. Terrorism had been linked with Islamic fundamentalism.

A large bundle of press reports had been submitted to support the submission as to racial intolerance in France and that the guilt of the applicants had been asserted and assured. Particular reliance was placed upon a statement by the Minister of Justice on 9 November 1995: "He [Ramda] had played a role that was maybe not exclusive but at any rate essential in the bombing campaign that had struck our country since 25 July."

It was also argued that the French legal system did not have safeguards to deal with the situation which had arisen. Trial would be by judges alone at a special assize court. The court had no power to stay a prosecution on the ground that pre-trial publicity had rendered a fair trial impossible. It did not give a reasoned judgment and there was no right of appeal save on a point of law. There was no attack on the special court as such, but it was claimed that, in the absence of procedural and substantive safeguards, there was a risk of prejudice at the trial in the particular situation which had arisen.

The French government stated that Article 64 of the French constitution confimed the independence of the judiciary from the executive. As to the statement by the Minister of Justice, that reflected his personal view and could not have any influence on the criminal trial.

The concept that a public statement made by a Minister of Justice in relation to a major investigation reflected only his personal view was a difficult one. In relation to their section 6 claim, however, the applicants faced an insumountable obstacle. The risk of prejudice at the trial must be shown to be by reason of race, religion, nationality or political opinions. Even if it could be shown that a media campaign which followed a serious outbreak of bombing did create a risk of prejudice, it was inconceivable that a risk could be present for any of the reasons stated in section 6.

The court had been invited to infer not only that the judges would be prejudiced against the applicants but also that they would be prejudiced on one or more of the grounds in section 6(l)(d). If there were to be potential for unfairness, it could not be said that it might arise from the stated criteria as distinct from other possible factors, such as an abhorrence of the dreadful crimes which had been committed in France by some person or persons.

Generally, no risk of any lack of fairness at the trial of either of the applicants could be found. The status, abilities and experience of the judges of the special court were such as would ensure a fair trial. There was no serious possibility that in performing their duties they would be influenced by inflammatory press reports or the reported remarks of the Minister of Justice. The applications were refused.

Kate O'Hanlon, Barrister