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Mr. Michael Burke

Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 2 April 2008

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean. I wish to present the case that my constituent Michael Burke and his family have been making since December about problems with his trial and imprisonment in Italy.

Michael Burke, a Manchester United supporter, travelled to Italy to watch his team play Roma in the champions league on 12 December 2007. On that day, violent clashes involving fans and the Italian police occurred before the game. Mr. Burke and three other men—Kyle Dillon, Nicholas Lukacs and Richard Wimmer—were arrested by the Italian police. After an abbreviated trial and court hearing, the four men were convicted of resisting arrest and assault, and all were handed custodial sentences. Michael Burke was sentenced to two years and four months in prison. Appeal on his conviction and those of the other three men will be heard on 2 May.

My hon. Friend the Minister will recall that I contacted him about the case on 24 December. He was helpful in obtaining some comment about the case from consular staff in Rome, but some of the information that he received appears not to match the statements made by my constituent and other men since then. At the time, there was a feeling in the UK that the violence in Rome should be condemned. English fans travelling abroad have earned a poor reputation over the years, and what happened with some Manchester United fans last December seemed to underline that.

It was initially reported in the media that the Italian police officers who arrested the four were helped by spotters from the Greater Manchester police who identified the men as known troublemakers. That was not the case. I have it in writing from the late chief constable of Greater Manchester police, Michael Todd, that no GMP officers were involved in the arrest. The Greater Manchester police also confirmed that they have not provided any evidence to the Italian legal system, and that the Italian authorities never requested any. Michael Burke has said in a statement that he was actually at the receiving end of a violent attack rather than having caused one. It seems clear that Michael Burke and the other fans were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I turn to my concerns about legal representation and the trial of Mr. Burke. The right to a competent interpreter for anyone who does not understand the language of the court is considered a fundamental rule of justice, and one of my chief concerns about the trial is that Mr. Burke was not offered effective or competent interpreting or translation services. That also affected the quality of legal assistance. The court-allocated lawyer did not speak English, and Mr. Burke and the other fans do not speak or understand Italian. Mr. Burke and the other men met the court-appointed lawyer in the holding cell immediately before their first hearing, and no interpreter was present. Mr. Burke has commented that he had no idea what was happening or what he was being charged with.

My hon. Friend is making a strong case on behalf of her constituent and of mine, Nicholas Lukacs. I apologise that I will not be able to stay for the full debate. Will she raise with the Minister the conditions in which the four men were held in prison, particularly during the first two weeks after the events that she has described? They were denied access to towels, toiletries and a change of clothes. They were confined for 23 hours at a time without breaks and at no time during those two weeks were they given access in English to the information that she mentioned.

Indeed I will. I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I shall return to it later, although I know that he will not be able to be here.

Article 6 of the European convention on human rights states:

“Everyone charged with a criminal offence has the following minimum rights:

(a) to be informed promptly, in a language which he or she understands and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusation against him…(c) to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing…(e) to have the free assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand or speak the language used in court.”

Language translation and a court interpreter are clearly of the utmost importance to British citizens arrested abroad.

Further difficulties in the case relate to differences in the legal systems. The Italian legal system is inquisitorial and allows for abbreviated trials, which are unfamiliar to those here in the UK. My constituent and the other defendants accepted an abbreviated trial without understanding the consequences. Mr. Burke has written since then that the men were told only that an abbreviated trial represented their best chance of being released and that, if they agreed to one, they would be home quickly. Given that it happened only a few days before Christmas, it was understandable that they accepted. Indeed, they do not appear to have been given another option. My constituent has learned since then that agreeing to an abbreviated trial implies a guilty plea, but he has never admitted guilt and says that he would not do so. I feel that he accepted an abbreviated trial only because its implications were not properly explained to him.

My constituent and the other three men were first given access to an interpreter only when they entered the court for their first hearing. Mr. Burke has written that the interpreter did not communicate any of the exchanges between the judge and the prosecution. In fact, when Mr. Burke asked to be told what was happening, the interpreter told him to be quiet. Mr. Burke has also written that he had no confidence that his statement was represented fairly in court, and that the interpreter spoke in quite broken English that he and the other men found difficult to understand.

Before the trial, Mr. Burke and his fellow defendants requested a more competent interpreter. Their lawyer apparently agreed to it, yet when they returned to court for the trial hearing, the original interpreter was again present. My constituent says that they again asked the interpreter to explain what was happening in court and that the interpreter again refused to interpret the proceedings, saying, “I’m not here to tell you about the trial, only to tell you whether you’re going to prison or not.” In fact, the next time the interpreter spoke to them was to tell Mr. Burke and Mr. Lukacs that they had been sentenced to more than two years in prison.

The trial process appears to contravene article 6 of the European convention on human rights. How can my constituent have received a fair trial if he did not understand a word of what was being said and if his interpreter refused to interpret the court proceedings for him? Case law of the European convention on human rights makes it clear that the obligation towards the defendant also extends to ensuring that he has translations of all the relevant documents in the proceedings in order for the trial to be fair within the meaning of article 6.

In March 2003, Stephen Jakobi, a lawyer and the founder and former director of Fair Trials Abroad, told the European Scrutiny Committee:

“I am hoping that resources will be found in Europe to have an efficient, European level justice system that works. We have not got one in the European Court of Human Rights, I am afraid.”

Referring to a landmark judgment in Kamasinski v. Austria 1989, which is seen to have set the standard for court interpretation, Stephen Jakobi said that

“about three countries actually made the effort to get the standard of interpretation and translation right, including, I am glad to say, the United Kingdom. As for the rest, nobody is anywhere near it. It is no good having a court of last resort that supposedly is setting standards for the whole of Europe if nobody listens to it.”

A duty is placed on the court to provide defendants with effective interpretation and translation, but Fair Trials Abroad feels that that duty is not being taken seriously in much of the EU.

Of the first hearing, Michael Burke writes:

“The interpreter asked me to tell the court my account of what happened. I did this. It took me about five minutes or so. The interpreter then translated this in about 30 seconds.”

Even allowing for differences in language and speed of delivery, it seems unlikely that the interpreter provided the court with an accurate interpretation of Mr. Burke’s words. Summarising Mr. Burke’s statement to that extent must have resulted in the court hearing only a truncated version of what he said.

The European convention on human rights also states that the accused has the right to full knowledge of the charges against him. As I have mentioned, my constituent writes that he did not know the charges against him until after the first court hearing. By that time, Mr. Burke had made a statement to the court about what happened without knowing the charges against which he was defending himself. Also, the four men did not meet their court-appointed lawyer until minutes before the first hearing, and the lawyer was unable to offer them competent legal assistance because of the language barrier. I understand that Mr. Dillon requested that the four men have the use of a private lawyer, but the request was refused, so the men were represented by a lawyer who did not provide them with sufficient information to understand that accepting the abbreviated form of trial meant effectively pleading guilty.

Although the solution to the problems lies in the Italian justice system, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take any steps that he can to ensure that my constituent and the other men receive a fair hearing when their appeal comes to court on 2 May. We need to think about the problems created for the families of Michael Burke and the other fans arrested who will be missing their loved ones and suffering financially: the appeal lawyer is costing the families many thousands of pounds each; each visit to Italy costs many hundreds of pounds in flights and accommodation; and the four men are not, of course, working or earning. Together, that causes great distress and worry to the families.

I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his involvement in the case and for keeping in touch with me over it. To some extent, consular visits have helped to ensure that my constituent’s welfare is adequate, although it is worth returning to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) about the fact that standards in Italian prisons are nothing like even those that people complain about in this country. Food, exercise and finding things to do are all issues. Straight after the trial and conviction, the four fans were together in one prison, but disturbingly they have now been dispersed across different prisons, some quite a distance from Rome, which again makes travelling for the families very difficult. Given that none of those fans speaks Italian, they are now stuck with nobody to talk to, which is a very difficult situation to be in. Standards in those prisons fall short of what we would expect to find in prisons in the UK. Michael Burke and the other three men are to be in Italian prisons for up to two and half years, because they got caught up in violence not of their own making.

I ask the Minister whether he can take his involvement in the case further and make important interventions before the appeal on 2 May. Will he write to the Italian authorities urging them to provide my constituent and the other defendants with translations of court documents and an effective court interpreter? They did not have those during their first case, but given everything that I have said today, there is no reason why they should not have them at their appeal hearing.

Mr. Burke’s partner has booked flights and accommodation to visit him on 1 May—the day before the appeal hearing—but the families have just been told that 1 May is a public national holiday in Italy and that, as a consequence, prisons are closed to visitors. It is a pity that they have made all their arrangements already, because clearly it is key for the families to visit before this vital appeal and it is, of course, very difficult to change those arrangements. Will the Minister urge the prison to allow Mr. Burke’s partner to visit? I should add that, when I ask him to make the case for Mr. Burke, I mean him to include the constituents of other hon. Members, including of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak.

More broadly, will the Minister look into this case as a matter of urgency to see whether anything else can be done to ensure that my constituent and the other three British citizens get a fair hearing, particularly at the appeal? If the appeal fails—none of us wants to think that way, or hopes that we will need this solution—can anything be done to allow my constituent and the other fans to be repatriated to the UK, so that they can be closer to their families? That would at least release them from some of the financial distress being experienced from travelling to Italy. We understand that that is done from time to time, but that very often there is a delay of something approaching 12 to 18 months. We realise that that could not be considered until after the appeal. However, it could be considered then—but not if it will take 12 to 18 months and involve all that financial distress.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean, and to say that I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) was successful in securing this debate on such an important subject. Right from the beginning, she has taken a tenacious and personal interest in this matter. She wrote to the Foreign Secretary the very day that her constituent visited her to explain Mr. Burke’s predicament. She has also contacted me personally on numerous occasions, here in the House, and on Christmas eve, when I was pleased to have the opportunity to talk to her and to put additional energy into the process.

My hon. Friend raised a wider point about the right of British, and all citizens, following football teams across the European Union, to do so safely, although that can never be guaranteed, and with the full protection of domestic law, and of European law as a residual protection. As somebody who has travelled as a football supporter—not a Minister—of Glasgow Celtic, I know that that is a live conversation among the many thousands of supporters who increasingly travel across the continent to support their football team. That includes the four gentlemen who are the subject of this debate.

I shall respond to some of the points raised by my hon. Friend who secured this debate and by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), who made particular reference to Mr. Lukacs. She raised a number of important issues and shared with the Chamber some details about the timeline of the case. As Minister, however, it is incumbent on me to put on public record those specifics, particularly in relation to Mr. Burke’s case. As she said, Mr. Burke was arrested prior to the Roma versus Manchester United match in Rome on 12 December 2007 and subsequently charged with assault and resisting arrest, along with three other Manchester United followers. Consular staff present at the match made contact with Mr. Burke to check on his welfare. He asked that we did not notify anyone of his arrest, but subsequently asked that we contact his partner in the UK, Ms Carmon Ducker, which we did on 14 December.

As my hon. Friend alluded to, on 14 December, Mr. Burke appeared before the magistrate and at that hearing his court-appointed lawyer, avvocato Lupino, requested that the hearing be adjourned to allow more time to prepare for the case. The magistrate rescheduled the hearing for 21 December and in the meantime remanded Mr. Burke at Regina Coeli prison. During this time, consular staff provided Mr. Burke with our prisoner’s information pack, which included details of English-speaking private lawyers in the Rome area, should Mr. Burke not wish to be represented by the court-appointed lawyer.

My hon. Friends both raised wider points about the welfare of all the gentlemen, but particularly about that of Mr. Burke and Mr. Lukacs, during that first period. During those first days, the men raised a number of concerns identified by my hon. Friends, such as the lack of toiletries and reading material, the cold and some medical concerns. My understanding is that British authorities provided toiletries and reading materials to all four and a warm jumper to the one who only had a T-shirt. We raised the medical concerns with the Italian prison authorities, as is standard practice in such cases. If hon. Members representing any of the men in question have further welfare concerns, on top of the residual and continuing ones before the appeal, I invite them to bring them to my attention, so that I can seek to ensure that they are addressed.

The families of three of the men were in the House today lobbying their respective MPs and we now have a list of concerns—in particular, there seem to be some considerable concerns about the prisons. On top of everything else that I have raised with the Minister today, we would take up the opportunity to put those concerns to him.

If my hon. Friend wishes, I would be pleased to meet her later this evening, after she has gathered that information, to discuss those specific concerns. Ultimately, the families will be comforted only by the release of their loved ones, but in the meantime, it would offer some small reassurance if the men could enjoy at least basic minimum welfare standards before the appeal. Happy is the wrong word, of course, but I am certainly very willing to meet her later this evening to discuss any specifics that the families might have raised with her and other hon. Members.

To continue, on 20 December, the court-appointed lawyer visited Mr. Burke in prison to discuss his case. With Mr Burke’s agreement, the lawyer decided to opt for a short trial. At the hearing on 21 December, as my hon. Friend has said, Mr. Burke was sentenced to two years and five months’ imprisonment. On instruction from his client, the lawyer immediately appealed the sentence. At a hearing on 24 December, the day that my hon. Friend contacted me, judges considering whether Mr. Burke could be released pending the appeal hearing on 2 May were unable to reach a decision and remanded him in custody again until 27 December, when they rejected that request. At that time, Mr. Burke decided to appoint a private lawyer, avvocato Cesschini, to represent him.

Since that time, consular staff have worked hard to assist Mr. Burke and his partner, Ms Ducker. We have raised specific concerns with the prison authorities about Mr. Burke’s welfare. I understand that the prison authorities originally refused to allow Mr. Burke’s partner permission to visit him, because they were not married; the fact that they were not married raises specific complications in terms of visits, under Italian rules and regulations. However, following our representations, the prison authorities granted Ms Ducker that access to visit. Assistance was also provided in respect of other details about the visits to Mr. Burke, including information about transportation from Rome and hotel accommodation.

My hon. Friend asked a specific question about visiting rights on bank holidays. Because she raised that point, I will of course undertake to investigate to see whether anything can be done. However, in advance of today’s debate and in anticipation that my hon. Friend might raise this issue, I specifically asked the relevant officials about the details of prison visits on bank holidays in Italy. I was informed by those officials that a set of rules is in place not in respect of UK nationals but in respect of everyone who is currently imprisoned, awaiting appeal or sentence in Italian prisons and it is because the prisons have a skeleton staff of prison officers on bank holidays. So I do not wish to give my hon. Friend and her constituents false hope, but I will undertake to see what more can be done, notwithstanding the fact that there will be a skeleton staff in that prison and every other prison in Italy at that time.

Following my hon. Friend’s conversation with officials in London on 22 February, when she raised specific concerns that her constituent was forced to sign a document under duress, consular staff in Rome visited Mr. Burke and asked him to provide a written account of events following his arrest. Mr. Burke did not refer to being forced to sign any documents, but, along with the other three gentlemen arrested at the same time, he raised other concerns about their representation at the time of the trial.

I know that it will be frustrating for those who are following our proceedings closely when I say that it would be wrong for a UK Government Minister to seek, today or at any other time, to interfere in court proceedings in another country, in the same way that it would be entirely inappropriate for a Government Minister of another country to seek to interfere in court proceedings in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend asked about the appeal and argued with great care about some of the specific flaws that have been identified by her and relatives of the four men. Many of the points that she has raised today are, of course, the substantive points that form a large body of the argument in respect of the appeal that will take place on 2 May. So it would be unhelpful for me to seek to intervene in the specific details of the court case. However, we have considered how best to address those concerns with the Italian authorities and, with the agreement of avvocato Cesschini and the men’s families, we have decided to wait until after 2 May, when, of course, we will know the outcome of the appeal hearing.

My hon. Friend also speculated about what more could be done in the event of the worst outcome on 2 May. I say to her that, if the worst should occur, there would be a need for us to have a conversation about what more could be done. She has identified a substantial list of concerns that she and the families have, and I understand that many of those concerns are shared by Mr. Burke’s new private lawyer. Therefore, without wishing to second-guess that appeal process, there is great hope that the outcome on 2 May will be much more favourable than the outcome of the proceedings in December.

More generally, my hon. Friend asked about what more could be done now and in the longer term. As she is aware, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s primary role in assisting British nationals detained or arrested overseas is to support them and to consider their welfare. We can take up any justified complaint about an individual not being treated in line with internationally accepted standards or if they have been ill-treated or discriminated against. Of course, as my hon. Friend knows and will fairly acknowledge, as will all those campaigning on behalf of the four gentlemen, we cannot seek preferential treatment on the basis of nationality; I think that that is generally accepted and nobody is arguing that case. That is not the business that we are in; we are in the business of ensuring the guaranteeing of minimum standards of protection.

I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that we have monitored Mr. Burke’s case since his arrest in December and will continue to do so right up until his appeal on 2 May. Consular staff in Rome and London have provided assistance, and I would like to put on record the Government’s appreciation of the work that they have provided in regard to this case. They have provided full consular assistance to Mr. Burke and his family. Staff have visited him on three separate occasions; provided information on Italian prison procedures; assisted in arranging family visits; and taken up welfare concerns, as I have already mentioned.

Again, my hon. Friend fairly asked about access to translation services, including immediate verbal translation and the translation of court documents. I must tell her that the practice of the UK Government in all such matters is not to translate documents on behalf of UK citizens. I realise that that may disappoint her, but it is not the practice of the UK Government to fund or organise the translation of court documents, in a court in Rome or in any other city across the world, on behalf of UK citizens. What is offered is access to information about translation services that may be available in the city where the proceedings are taking place. If such a service would be helpful or is required, of course it can be offered, if it has not already been offered.

We will continue to seek ways to provide Mr. Burke and his family with all appropriate consular assistance until such time as he returns to the United Kingdom, which may be as early as May, as we all hope, depending on the outcome of the appeal hearing on 2 May.

In the same determined way that she has carried out the campaign in Parliament, my hon. Friend entirely reasonably asked what would happen if the appeal on 2 May is unsuccessful, including the potential transfer of the four gentlemen back to the United Kingdom to serve any outstanding sentence. Of course, none of us wants that scenario to happen and we are all hoping for the most positive outcome possible. However, if that were to be the case and the appeal were unsuccessful—again, it would be wrong for me to second-guess the appeal today—my offer to her is for us to meet again to specifically discuss what the options would then be. By that time, my hon. Friend and other hon. Members would have had the opportunity to reflect with the four gentlemen and their families, support networks and lawyers. As I say, I would certainly be willing to meet my hon. Friend again to discuss what would happen next in the proceedings. However, I think that we all hope that we do not get to that situation and that, without wishing to second-guess the court proceedings, the appeals are successful on 2 May.

Finally, I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend once again on the remarkably determined way in which, from the day that this case was brought to her attention, she has campaigned on this matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Five o’clock.