The innocent inmates in Europe's overburdened prisons


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Thousands of people who have never been convicted of any crime are being held in overburdened prisons across Europe with some remaining in squalid conditions for years before being put on trial, according to a report out today.

Campaigners called for European legislation to establish a one-year limit for pre-trial detention after research revealed wide differences between nations over how long suspects could be held before they went before a court.

Suspects can be held for up to four years in Spain, Slovakia, France and the Czech Republic before they stand trial, and other countries, such as Belgium, have no maximum limit, said Fair Trials international. Britain - which has the largest prison population in the EU - can keep people in prison for a maximum of 182 days, for most cases, between the case being heard at a magistrates' court and going to trial at crown court.

Fair Trials International, which compiled the report, said about 133,000 people were being held in pre-trial detention across the EU, representing more than a fifth of the total prison population.

It claimed that the practice was overused was ruining lives and costing the EU £4.1billion every year to keep them in custody. The group said that increasing numbers of people were being extradited under European Arrest Warrants - introduced in 2003 to fast-track extraditions - only to be held in prisons for months awaiting trial.

Figures suggest that more than one quarter of those held in custody were foreign nationals who, the organisation said, stood a greater risk of a miscarriage of justice.

Jago Russell, chief executive of Fair Trials International, said: "The EU must now wake up to this scandal and take the action that is so urgently needed to tackle it." The group highlighted the case of Andrew Symeou who was held in a filthy Greek prison for nearly a year accused of the manslaughter of a Welsh teenager at a nightclub on the island of Zante. Mr Symeou said he was not in the nightclub at the time.

The student was extradited in 2009 and was finally cleared in June this year. "Being in a maximum security prison at that age in a foreign country when you can't really understand the language at all - this was the worst stage of my life," he told BBC Radio 5 Live after his release.

The European Commission has started a consultation exercise. A spokeswoman said yesterday that the issue was a matter for individual countries and there were no current plans to change that approach

Case studies...

David Penny

In December 2006, three policemen in plainclothes knocked on David Penny's home in Tenerife and asked him to go with them to answer a few questions. He was taken to a court for "half-a-dozen" cursory questions and then put in a cell. "That was that for two years," Mr Penny said yesterday.

It took 18 months before police finally released an 11,000-page document before Mr Penny said he learned the detail of his alleged role in a drug smuggling ring. The document, said Mr Penny, suggested that he was part of a group of expat Britons who were part a dangerous drug smuggling gang.

Mr Penny, who ran an international removals company that shifted possessions between Tenerife and the UK was arrested after police claimed to have found a stash of drugs in a car inside a container that he helped to ship. Part of the case against him was formed from wiretapped conversations. In the thousands of pages, there were three references to him, all of them innocent, he said.

Mr Penny, 54, who is married with four children, said that he applied every month for bail with the support of local business and politicians from the island where he had live for more than 25 years. Finally, after two years, he got bail at the cost of 50,000 euros. The case finally started this year and all the defendants were acquitted. "There were 13 of us who served about 50 years in pre-trial detention," Mr Penny said. "In the end, nobody was found guilty of anything.

"It had a devastating effect on the family and my finances. We have gone from economic stability and being quite comfortable to massive debt and re-mortgaging everything that we own, just to keep our heads above water."

Michael Turner

Michael Turner returned to Britain after the failure of a business venture in Budapest in 2005. He was accused of fraud by the Hungarian authorities and after being held on a European Arrest Warrant, he was extradited to the country in November 2009. Mr Turner - who had been on bail and was reporting regularly to the authorities while in Britain - was told at his first appearance before a judge that he would spend time in prison because he represented a flight risk.

Leaflets from the British embassy suggested that he would be in an open prison with a relaxed regime. It was, said Mr Turner, now 29, far from the truth. "I spent 23 hours a day in a cell with three other guys," he said of the former KGB prison, where food was passed through a hole in the door. They were allowed out for an hour a day for exercise, but the sub-zero temperatures outside and meant that he often turned down the opportunity. Food was passed to him through a hole in the door. "You were allowed one shower a week," he said. "There was a toilet in a cell behind a door, which had a big hole in it that was covered in a cloth."

He was held for 115 days before he secured his release and was able to leave the country. No charges have yet been brought but the investigation continues. Mr Turner's life remains on hold while it does so. The former director is working in his father's pub in Dorset, and is not applying for other jobs because of the legal threat hanging over him.