Trying to right injustices of wronged fan

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The Independent Online

Mark Forrester's campaign for justice is not particularly fashionable. It is only remotely likely that a tabloid newspaper will fund his family and fly him back to Belgium to complete the prison sentence handed down last year when he became the only one of the hundreds of England football fans detained in Brussels during the European Championship finals to be convicted of any offence.

Mark Forrester's campaign for justice is not particularly fashionable. It is only remotely likely that a tabloid newspaper will fund his family and fly him back to Belgium to complete the prison sentence handed down last year when he became the only one of the hundreds of England football fans detained in Brussels during the European Championship finals to be convicted of any offence.

He was labelled a thug by The Sun and, perhaps worse, The Times reported that he had previous convictions for football violence. The Times' subsequent "apology" for this incorrect fact came too late and, as is the way of these things, too small to save Mark's job as a plant hire manager.

A married man of 34, Mark was charged with inciting the English fans to riot the night before the England versus Germany match and of assaulting five riot policemen. The only evidence against him is the statement of a Belgian police spotter, who maintains he saw Mark, who was not dressed distinctively, making inflammatory gestures from the early afternoon. Mark, who travelled to Belgium in a party of eight, including his father, Carl, a local government manager, did not arrive in Brussels from Holland until the early evening and did not leave his hotel until 8 o'clock after watching the France versus Czech Republic match on television.

On the outbreak of trouble in the Grande Place, the police tear-gassed bars and waded indiscriminately into bystanders breaking bones, before corralling hundreds of English (and some Americans and Swedes for good measure) on the pavement. Mark was one of those handcuffed and jailed. Anyone following the British media during Euro 2000 could have been forgiven for thinking England's reputation could not have sunk any lower. But history has shown that, when the yobs are let off the leash in a foreign city, the biggest casualty is usually the truth.

Mark points to the macho statements which emanated from the office of the Mayor of Brussels two days earlier. The mayor made it perfectly clear that he wanted as many English to be detained as possible. As pep talks go, there's no doubt it had the desired effect.

In order to meet the requirements of the fast-track system, which affords no opportunity to call alibi or witness evidence (or any real evidence at all, it seems) in defence of the charge, Mark was charged with assault and, seven days later, he was fined £350 and sentenced to a year's imprisonment, with six months suspended for three years.

After a month it was realised that the sentence was inappropriate and Mark was released on bail pending a re-trial. The hearing was delayed because the only witness was unavailable and, after much procrastination, the case came before the court again with the interesting observation from the prosecutor, who was aware from the police video of the pictures which depicted Mark well away from the scene of the trouble, that the conviction was unsound and should be quashed.

Despite this, the judge reserved judgment and Mark had to go back again after a further four weeks, only to hear a verdict which flies in the face of the European Convention on Human Rights. The judge ruled that, because the video, which, incidentally, had been conveniently edited, did not conclusively prove that Mark did not commit the offences, the evidence of the sole spotter had to be upheld, despite the fact that it was riddled with inconsistencies. The presumption of innocence apparently does not apply to football supporters.

What are Mark's chances of clearing his name? His front room houses a stack of files and correspondence. The whole climate of the times has been against him. The government pushed through legislation to prevent known hooligans travelling to football abroad and is disinclined to make any serious representations about the behaviour of the Belgian police.

And the Football Association, which acquiesced when Uefa threatened to send the team home, has since suspended Mark's membership of the England Members Club (with the result he was prevented from attending the recent England match at Villa Park, though Aston Villa, the club he supports, had barred him anyway).

However, Mark's MEP, Liz Lynne has raised the case in Strasbourg and lawyer Stephen Jakobi of the charity Fair Trials Abroad is helping, but the Belgians' whole system of justice would lose credibility if evidence were shown to have been tainted.

England's next qualifier is in Athens on 6 June. English fans travelling to Greece for a brief respite from the General Election campaign mustn't expect too much support if any bother arises.

Mark is unlikely to be able to go. He'll probably watch the match on television. That's if three-year-old Lauren is slightly less demanding of her daddy's attention than is her custom around bedtime.

Grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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