The Euro 2000 fan who became a legal football

Mark Forrester sits in a Brussels jail convicted of attacking police at Euro 2000. None of those assaulted identified him, there's no video evidence and his alibi is backed by witnesses. So what went wrong?
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The Independent Online

Mark Forrester was particularly looking forward to his Brussels trip for Euro 2000. The 33-year-old manager and family man from Birmingham was an Aston Villa season-ticket holder, had been a member of the England members' supporters' club for some years and, lucky chap, had a ticket for the England-Germany match in Charleroi. No one could have forecast his current plight sitting in a Brussels prison convicted of assaulting Belgian police officers.

Mark Forrester was particularly looking forward to his Brussels trip for Euro 2000. The 33-year-old manager and family man from Birmingham was an Aston Villa season-ticket holder, had been a member of the England members' supporters' club for some years and, lucky chap, had a ticket for the England-Germany match in Charleroi. No one could have forecast his current plight sitting in a Brussels prison convicted of assaulting Belgian police officers.

Forrester's nightmare began when, along with fellow members of his party, he became one of the 400 Britons arrested in the centre of Brussels on June 16. They had been thrown out of a café - where they had been sheltering from a mob - because the proprietor had been instructed to close it. They then found themselves in the path of the riot police. The last thing that any of the group saw of Forrester was when he was singled out and thrown to the ground. He was arrested and accused of fomenting riots and assault on police officers.

Five days later, Forrester's trial began. The case was clearly based on mistaken identity. A police officer, who was based in a "spotter" helicopter to assist the riot police, stated that he was absolutely sure he had seen Forrester start a riot in the city's Grand Place at 2.15pm and said that he kept it going every time the police looked as though they were gaining control.

The police spotter also said that he saw Forrester start another riot outside O'Reilly's bar at 6.15pm. Once again, he said Forrester was on hand to keep the riot going. He added that Forrester attacked five police officers from behind and then disappeared into the crowd. No evidence from any assaulted policeman was produced, and they could not even be named. No video evidence was produced because the quality was too poor.

The defence largely rested upon Forrester's well-supported alibi for these alleged incidents. He was a member of a party of eight people that included his father, Carl. At 2.15pm, they had yet to arrive in Brussels. At 18.15, the party had just checked into their hotel and were still unpacking. When Forrester was supposed to be assaulting police officers he was in the pub next door to his hotel having a meal. There were statements in support of this version of events from hotel staff. With proper presentation of this defence no court in Europe would even dream of convicting. Nevertheless, Forrester was convicted of assaulting police officers and he was sentenced to one year's imprisonment. So what went wrong?

His appeal is due to start today, and his lawyers will claim that his case is unique. He is the only man in Europe who has been convicted after a trial conducted under Belgium's "fast-track" system. Under this radical new Belgian law, the only offences triable are serious offences carrying a possible sentence of at least one year. The trial must start within five days, and it must finish a week from arrest. Since this cannot be accomplished under Belgium's normal examining magistrate system (which protects the accused) the magistrate's power is given to the prosecutor. So the prosecutor decides what evidence shall be called for the hearing - even for the defence. Forrester's defence team was only permitted to produce written statements, and it was not allowed to approach potential witnesses. So, it was impossible to present a proper defence.

Parliamentarians warned the Belgian government during the debate on the legislation that it was a deliberate defiance of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The strict time limits contravene the rule that the defence must have adequate time to prepare. It would have been impossible for Forrester's defence, resting on alibi evidence from foreigners, to be properly presented in time. One of the tenets of fair trial is the right for a defendant to obtain the attendance and examination of witnesses on his behalf under the same conditions as witnesses against him. This is not possible where the prosecutor acts as the arbiter.

As far as we are aware, no other national government within the European Union has deliberately legislated in defiance of the ECHR since the treaty was ratified. Forrester's case has important implications for some current EU debates. A charter of fundamental freedoms is currently being shaped. Areas of discussion include whether the ECHR should be incorporated into such a charter and whether it should be binding on the EU member states. The Belgians appear to have handed a key argument to those who would answer "Yes" to both these questions. Those arguing for mutual recognition of criminal judgments within the European legal space have a new problem.

An application to the European Court of Justice and compensation is bound to succeed but it will take two or three years to bring to court. In the meantime, Forrester faces a life ban on attending football matches and severe restrictions on foreign travel as a result of this conviction. He has already lost his job.

The writer is the director of Fair Trials Abroad and the solicitor advising Forrester