Commission says EU countries must stop excessive pre-trial detention


The European Commission published a Green Paper on detention across the European Union. The consultation was ordered by the European Council, in recognition that “excessively long periods of pre-trial detention are detrimental to the individual, can prejudice judicial cooperation between the member states and do not represent the values for which the European Union stands”.

The Green Paper states that prison overcrowding and poor treatment could undermine confidence in recent EU justice measures like the European Arrest Warrant and up-coming compulsory prisoner transfers. The study reveals that almost 25% of people held in EU prisons today are pre-trial detainees and that non-nationals represent 21% of the EU’s prison population.

Jago Russell, Chief Executive of Fair Trials International, said:

“In much of Europe it is common for people to be held for months or years in appalling prison conditions before their trial even starts. Today’s Green Paper shows that at long last the EU has woken up to this scandalous situation. Let’s hope Europe now takes the action which is so urgently needed to tackle it.”

Fair Trials International is regularly contacted by people who have spent months or even years in prison in a European country awaiting trial. Some countries, like Belgium, have no maximum length for pre-trial detention at all; others, like Spain, allow pre-trial detention of up to four years. In some countries bail does not exist and simple systems like electronic tagging have not yet been introduced. Overcrowding, violence, poor healthcare and lack of facilities for trial preparation are issues we see week in, week out. Fair Trials International welcomes this consultation and will call for urgent action to ensure that basic rights are protected in Europe’s detention regime.


Fair Trials International is a human rights charity which provides assistance to people arrested in a country other than their own and campaigns for reform to fight the underlying causes of injustice in cross-border cases. 

The European Commission’s Green Paper has been launched under the European Council’s “Roadmap” of procedural safeguards for defendants and suspects, a programme of reform to raise fair trial standards to an acceptable minimum across the EU. The consultation runs until 30 November 2011. It will involve a detailed review of the alternatives to pre-trial detention and what the EU can do to promote these, to strengthen the effective monitoring of prison conditions, and end excessively long pre-trial detention. The Commission wants to assess whether legally binding rules, for instance EU minimum rules on regular review of the grounds for detention, would help to reduce its use and promote alternatives.

  • Alternatives to pre-trial detention:

The Green Paper reminds member states that pre-trial detention is an exceptional measure to be applied only when other measures are judged to be insufficient. The European Supervision Order (ESO) is due to be implemented across the EU in December 2012. It is intended to reduce numbers of pre-trial detainees, by enabling non-custodial supervision measures to be transferred from the country where the person is suspected of having committed an offence to the country where he or she is normally resident. The ESO system is discretionary and the Commission fears it will not be used uniformly across the EU, but only between countries where mutual trust exists. This could defeat the purpose of the measure and cause inequality across the EU.

  • Poor conditions and overcrowding:

The Green Paper states that prisons are overcrowded in the EU, with some countries excessively over-capacity, such as Greece, Spain, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Hungary and Slovenia. It points out that poor prison conditions could prove an impediment to the transfer of prisoners, which is set to become compulsory between EU countries this December. The Commission fears that prisoners who do not want to be transferred will argue that transfer will subject them to inhuman or degrading treatment.

Our clients’ cases present a shocking picture of rights infringements across Europe: attempted murder, rapes and other violent attacks in prison; cramped and overcrowded cells; untreated medical conditions leaving lasting physical damage; years spent in pre-trial detention thousands of miles from home; no contact with family or friends during incarceration; little or no exercise or time outside of cell. All this makes effective trial preparation well-nigh impossible.

Fair Trials International has long campaigned for stronger safeguards to be introduced at EU level to strengthen basic defence rights and improve detention regimes. We use the real-life experiences of the people we assist to show the need for these safeguards. FTI is calling for a fairer system of pre-trial detention in Europe, one that preserves detainees’ Convention rights as far as possible, particularly the presumption of innocence, the right to liberty, the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the right to a fair trial. We will respond to the Commission’s Green Paper with a detailed report on pre-trial detention. We will hold a debate on the issue at the European Parliament this autumn.


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