Skip to main content

Joseph Mendy

Volume 465: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watts.]

Probably the most important function of a Member of Parliament is to try to right injustices that are done to any of our constituents. The injustice that I wish to highlight this evening concerns the extradition to Spain of my constituent, Joseph Mendy, under the provisions of the Extradition Act 2003.

The Act gave legal force to the European extradition warrant which, we were told, was intended to simplify and speed up—I emphasise speed up—the extradition of people accused of serious organised crime, such as terrorism, drug trafficking and people trafficking. I strongly supported such action to counter serious organised crime, but the application of the European extradition warrant to my constituent was wrong-headed, ludicrously disproportionate and vastly delayed, and led to serious injustice.

In November 2003, Joe Mendy, then aged 19, went on holiday with two friends to Fuerteventura in the Canary islands. On the second Friday of their stay, Joe Mendy was sitting by the hotel swimming pool when a number of Spanish police officers appeared and insisted that he accompany them to the hotel room that he was sharing with his friends. The police searched Joe Mendy, his two friends and their hotel room. They were taken to a police station, where they were charged with counterfeiting four €5O notes, one of which the police claimed had been passed in a bar and another in a shop. One note was in the possession of one of Joe Mendy’s friends, and the other was found among other notes in a drawer in the hotel room.

All three young men were held in custody separately until the Sunday. Joe Mendy was asked repeatedly how and where he was printing counterfeit euro notes. The police checked whether Joe had paid with forged euros when he bought a watch. He had not. During this time the three young men were given only one bread roll and water, and were subject to racist abuse and told that things were made especially hard for black English in the Spanish criminal justice system—a threat borne out by events.

Joe Mendy and his two friends appeared in court on the following Monday and were told to report back to the court at 9 am the next morning. On returning to their hotel room, they found that most of their belongings had been stolen. None has been recovered. On returning to court on time the next day, they were told that they would be released, that they would hear further from the Spanish authorities and that, in the meantime, they could return to Britain. Their passports, after being copied, were returned to them. All this happened, I emphasise, in 2003.

Nothing more was heard by any of the young men until March this year, when officers from the Serious Organised Crime Agency in this country called at Joe Mendy’s family home in Camden Town. Joe’s mother explained that her son was living in Liverpool. The officers gave her their phone number, which she passed on to Joe, who telephoned the police and volunteered to return to London. The police did not get back to him, so he called again and was told that the police in Liverpool would be dealing with his case. The upshot was that on 28 March this year Joe Mendy was served a European arrest warrant, held in police cells in Liverpool overnight and brought to London in a police vehicle for a court appearance the next day.

Joe Mendy was then released on bail. He duly appealed against the extradition. As the Minister and the House know, this involves the UK courts doing nothing more than going through the motions, because there are virtually no grounds on which to challenge a European extradition warrant. At the court hearing on 3 July, the extradition was duly allowed to proceed. On 18 July, Joe Mendy went under his own steam to Heathrow to report to the UK police, who handed him over to the Spanish police, who accompanied him to Madrid.

At the subsequent court appearance in Madrid, Joe Mendy was denied bail on the bizarre grounds that he was a flight risk. By this time, the Spanish judicial holidays were commencing, so my innocent constituent of exemplary good character was held in the Spanish jail over the summer. During that time, Joe discovered that the Spanish authorities, despite knowing his UK address and the addresses of his two friends, had followed up the initial hearing in the Canary islands by writing to them all after they had returned to the UK—not at their home addresses, but at their hotel at Fuerteventura.

After spending almost two months on remand in the Spanish jail, Joe appeared before a Spanish judge on 15 September. His Spanish lawyer advised him that if he continued to plead not guilty, he was likely to be held in jail for at least a further year before his case came to trial. If, however, he pleaded guilty, he would, because of his exemplary record in Britain, get a suspended sentence and a small fine. Understandably in such dreadful circumstances, he pleaded guilty and got a two-year suspended sentence and a €600 fine. Joe Mendy was released and is now back in the United Kingdom.

All that happened despite the fact that he was never in possession of any forged euro notes and had no idea that any notes were forgeries. The outrage visited on Joe Mendy did not end there. He had won a place at Liverpool John Moores university, but could not take up his place this year because of delays resulting from his Spanish misadventure. Following representations from me, the university was prepared to allow Joe to start his course late and try to catch up, but Joe has accepted what I believe to be the sound advice of Professor Michael Brown, the university vice-chancellor, that it would be better for him to take up his place next year. The university has undertaken to provide Joe with advice and help in the meantime so that he hits the ground running in autumn 2008. The university thus qualifies as the only bit of officialdom to display some common sense and humanity in this case.

The treatment of Joe Mendy is a disgrace; it is exactly the sort of incident that brings European institutions into disrepute. Sending letters to the hotel instead of the home addresses reveals incompetent administrative procedures in the Spanish judicial system. Following its error, it resorted to the use of the European extradition warrant. However, not all the fault lies with the Spanish authorities—I have discovered that they issued the warrant on 14 June 2004 and that an English-language version, of which I have a copy, has a date stamp showing that it was received by the UK central authority on 25 June 2004.

What happened to the warrant between June 2004 and March 2007? Was it mislaid? I would like to think that the Serious Organised Crime Agency was too busy on more important matters—it certainly should have been. Whatever the explanation, a three-year delay in the very procedure that was supposed to speed up extradition is surely unacceptable.

After the warrant was eventually served, the judge in Britain responded by deciding that a British citizen of exemplary character should be returned to Spain in July, despite it being known that the Spanish judicial holidays were coming up—meaning that Joe would probably have to stay in jail—and without recommending to her Spanish counterpart that Joe Mendy be granted bail in Spain. That was followed by a Spanish judge deciding that Joe Mendy was a flight risk, despite his never having displayed any such tendencies at any stage. That, in turn, was followed by Joe Mendy being pressured into pleading guilty by the prospect of a further period of a year on remand in a Spanish jail.

All that was over four 50 euro notes, none of which was found in his possession; all that was done under powers that this House granted to deal with serious organised crime that crosses international boundaries. I repeat: serious organised crime. That is made clear on the face of the warrant served on Joe Mendy. It lists 32 categories of crime it is intended to cover, including terrorism, trafficking in radioactive materials, sabotage, unlawful seizure of aircraft and ships, sexual exploitation of children, trafficking in drugs, trafficking in people and trafficking in weapons. It also includes hostage-taking, murder and laundering the proceeds of crime. I have to admit that it includes the counterfeiting of currency, including the euro, but did anyone seriously believe that it was intended to cover accusations relating to the innocent possession of four forged €50 notes?

Sadly, the law that we passed does not require the authorities to use their common sense or to have a sense of proportion. Having being passed by the House on the argument that it would speed up extradition, our law does not demand that the authorities proceed expeditiously. Instead, it demonstrably permits them to take nearly four years to crank up this draconian machinery. Have not the Spanish police and judiciary anything better to do? Was this the best use of Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency? What happened was not a crime, was not serious, and most certainly was not organised.

If the Spanish and UK authorities were so keen on this extradition, what about the other two young men? Neither Joe Mendy nor I want them to be treated as badly as he has been treated, but someone must explain why he was singled out for special mistreatment. I hope that the Minister will be able to clear up with the Spanish and the UK authorities how and why this whole mess came about and get them to apologise for their mistakes. I also think that my constituent should be compensated for the injustices that have been done to him.

The catalogue of incompetence that I have outlined has caused great injustice to my constituent, Joe Mendy. More generally, it has cost British and Spanish taxpayers a fortune in money and diverted the efforts of police and others who should have had better things to do with their time. It has brought the European extradition warrant system into disrepute. I believe that this House should insist on a change in the procedures so that common sense and a sense of proportion are included in the process. Nothing less will do.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) on securing this debate and on his persistence and thoroughness in raising his constituent’s concerns. He has been pursuing this matter for some time across a range of Government Departments and with the Spanish authorities. I am sure that he will understand that I cannot go into great detail about a specific case, but I feel that it would be useful to outline in the first instance the proceedings leading to the issuing of a European arrest warrant. I emphasise that, as I am sure that he appreciates, there is no involvement for the Home Secretary in European arrest warrant proceedings. An arrest warrant can be issued only by a recognised judicial authority, and the decision as to whether to order surrender is a matter for the courts in the country receiving it—in this case, the British courts.

Let me explain some of the background as to why we introduced the warrant in the first place, and then I will get on to some more specific issues. On 13 June 2002, the Council of the European Union agreed a framework decision on the European arrest warrant and the surrender procedures between member states. That was signed by the UK in July 2002, indicating that it would join the EU-wide simplified extradition procedure on 1 January 2004. The arrest warrant procedure has now been incorporated into UK domestic law under part 1 of the Extradition Act 2003, which came into force on 1 January 2004.

The European arrest warrant is a common warrant operated by all 27 member states of the EU, and Gibraltar. It applies to all crimes that are an offence in both the issuing and the receiving state that, under the law of the issuing state, attract a maximum sentence of at least a year’s imprisonment. The idea is that it works to tackle more serious crimes. It also applies to offences that have attracted a four-month custodial sentence in cases where the fugitive has already been convicted.

The basic principle for the introduction of the warrant, on which we all agree—I know that my right hon. Friend agrees because of his support for it—is that criminals should not be able to evade justice just because they have crossed an international border. In this regard, it is worth highlighting that the European arrest warrant has been a success since its inception in 2004. I have figures that go up to the end of 2006, and during the intervening period, 261 people were surrendered from England and Wales to face trial in EU countries and, importantly, 149 people were returned from EU countries to England and Wales to face trial here.

My right hon. Friend asked whether a judge in this country could have advised a judge in Spain about the bail and other proceedings that might have taken place under the Spanish legal system. I am advised that it is not appropriate or legally possible for a UK judge to advise a foreign court that someone should be granted bail. There is no power to do so under the extradition rules.

For the EU member states, the European arrest warrant replaced the 1957 Council of Europe convention on extradition. All of the countries now applying the EAW were similarly not required to provide prima facie evidence when previous requests were made under the old regime. Under the mode of operation for the warrant, the correct place for consideration of evidence is the European country conducting the criminal trial. We have to have faith in our European partners, and there are safeguards in place to ensure that each European country has a proper legal and judicial process to take such decisions.

Before I go into detail about the exemptions that exist for European arrest warrants, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will allow me to digress for a moment to put on the record that Mr Mendy’s case has not just attracted the attention of his Member of Parliament. It was the subject of an article on the website of Fair Trials Abroad. That article alleged that the Extradition Act 2003 is a rubber-stamping process that fails to protect Britons against potential human rights abuses. For the reassurance of the House and the country it is important that I categorically disagree with that assertion.

Anyone in the UK being sought for extradition to Spain, or any other part 1 territory in the EU, has his or her case examined by a district judge in this country. This is where the role of the British judiciary comes in because section 21 of the 2003 Act requires the district judge in the country of the person’s origin—in this case the UK—to decide whether the person’s extradition would be compatible with the convention rights within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998. If the judge decides that that extradition would not be compatible, he must order the person’s discharge. Although that safeguard is rarely used, it is an important part of the procedure.

The application of the arrest warrants in all member states is monitored by the EU’s multidisciplinary group on organised crime. Among other things, it looks at the issue of arrest warrants being used for apparently trivial offences. If my right hon. Friend has not already approached that group, he may be interested in raising this issue with it.

I can make general comments about the offences concerned, but I cannot comment on this particular case, which has been through the judicial process in Spain. As my right hon. Friend said, counterfeiting offences are not trivial. Counterfeiting is listed as one of the 32 more serious offences in respect of which the courts in the state receiving the European arrest warrant need not consider whether the offence is an offence in both jurisdictions. It is on the important list of offences that is being agreed across Europe so that we can tackle the most serious criminals. There was therefore no ground for challenging the arrest warrant on the basis of the charge sheet from the Spanish authorities.

There are ways in which to challenge the arrest warrant—my right hon. Friend outlined some of them but it is perhaps worth giving some of the headlines. There are bars to extradition, including double jeopardy, so someone cannot be extradited if he or she has already been tried for the offence for which the extradition is sought. There are also other considerations.

For example, if an arrest warrant was issued for the purpose of prosecuting or punishing on the ground of a person’s race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or political opinions, the authority in the person’s home country could rule that out. Passage of time, although not three years, could be relevant. The time is not set—it depends on the distance from the offence and whether a “reasonableness” argument can be made. A person cannot be arrested if it can conclusively be shown that he or she could not be guilty of an extradition offence because of his or her age when the alleged offence was committed. However, as Mr. Mendy was 19 at the time, that would not apply in his case.

My right hon. Friend mentioned hostage-taking considerations and other issues, which would not apply, so I shall not go into them. However, the human rights bar is also important. An extradition is barred if a judge decides that it would be incompatible with the person’s convention rights under the Human Rights Act 1998. There is no suggestion that criteria were not satisfied in Mr. Mendy’s case, but it is important to emphasise those important safeguards to make it clear that the European extradition warrant is not used willy-nilly but within proper judicial and legal procedures.

We have heard that Mr Mendy’s case has been concluded and that he is back in the UK having received a suspended sentence. I am pleased to hear that he can now start at Liverpool university next year and begin to get his life back on track.

I understand from the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which is the receiving body for the European arrest warrants, that there is some confusion about whether a proper English translation was received in time. However, I am interested in my right hon. Friend’s comments. He raised a serious issue about the receipt date of the European arrest warrant written in English. I shall investigate with SOCA—I have already asked officials to look into the matter—whether there are any general translation problems. All European arrest warrants have to be in the language of the receiving country in order to be expedited. It appears that we have slightly different information on the matter, so I promise to write to my right hon. Friend once a full investigation has been conducted.

I have in my hand a copy of the warrant, which was entered into the Spanish court on 7 May. It has a date stamp in the corner, which reads:

“UK Central Authority European Arrest Warrant 1st copy”

with a date of 25 June. I know no Spanish and I can read every word because it is in what I recognise as the language that Shakespeare used.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that because we need to get to the bottom of the procedure for when a warrant is received and what level of translation is expected. Perhaps we are setting the bar too high, but I do not want to speculate. I promise my right hon. Friend that I will look into the matter and get him an answer from SOCA.

I have listened to the debate and think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) made an interesting speech. I have never before written a letter to the Government and received the kind of response that I did when I wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister on a different matter, where the quality of advice that she had received from officials was such that she could not give me a response in a political context. I simply received a response in officialese. I have not made a comment like this in the House before, but listening to tonight’s debate, I have to question the quality of advice that she is receiving from her officials—I see that she has officials with her tonight—which seems to be below the level that she should receive in order to respond to my right hon. Friend.

Officials cannot respond for themselves and it is not really appropriate for my hon. Friend to raise the point in that way. I have been in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras about the issue for the past week or so. I have explained that it is difficult to go into the ins and outs of a case that was tried in another country. Much of the detail of the case is a matter for the Spanish authorities, on which the Government cannot readily comment.

We as a Government rightly take seriously our responsibility to comply with international obligations to execute all extradition warrants as they come. Clearly there is some confusion about when and with whom the warrant arrived. I have been trying to get to the bottom of that for the past couple of days and I apologise that I do not have all the information before the House tonight. However, I thank my right hon. Friend for raising the case, which serves to highlight a number of important points. The European arrest warrant is generally being used properly and well. Obviously, however, there are issues in the case in question, which he has articulated clearly. I commit to continue to look into them and to write to him with answers on the outstanding issues on which I have been unable to receive answers for the House, for which I apologise.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Seven o’clock.