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Andrew Symeou

Volume 503: debated on Thursday 14 January 2010

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

I am very grateful for the opportunity to bring the continuing incarceration of my constituent, Mr. Andrew Symeou, to the attention of the House and of the Minister for Europe.

As the Minister will know, Andrew, a 21-year-old man, has now been detained in Greece for nearly six months. His ordeal, however, began more than 18 months ago when the arrest warrant was first issued. Since then, I have been working closely with Andrew and his family. In that time, I have raised the issue with the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, the Justice Secretary and other Ministers. I have led a delegation to the Greek embassy and made representations to Ministers in Athens, and I am in frequent contact with consular staff in Greece. Yet Andrew still languishes in a prison that most international observers agree is one of the worst in Europe, denied bail and left with no information about when the case will come to court and, therefore, offered no end in sight. In the words of Andrew’s family and friends, who took their concerns to the Greek embassy on Saturday, enough is enough.

This Adjournment debate therefore comes at a crucial time and offers an opportunity for me to represent my constituent and raise these very serious issues directly with the Minister.

I have two main concerns about Andrew’s detention to raise this evening: first, the refusal of the Greek authorities to grant Andrew bail; and secondly, the number of inconsistencies and anomalies in the case file, which Andrew’s legal team have obtained. When taken together, those suggest that, at best, there has been a serious abuse of process in the gathering of evidence and the production of written statements, and at worst that evidence has been manipulated and sometimes fabricated to incriminate Andrew falsely.

More to the point, even though those concerns have been repeatedly brought to the attention of the Greek authorities, they have been dismissed out of hand, which I believe raises real doubts about whether Andrew can expect to receive a fair trial. If the Greek authorities are unwilling or unable credibly to investigate those issues, it is incumbent on the British Government to raise them directly with the Greek Government.

At the outset, however, it might be useful briefly to set out the background to the case. In the early hours of Friday 20 July 2007, Jonathan Hiles, a young man from Wales, on the eve of his 19th birthday, was punched and fell from a stage at the Rescue nightclub on the island of Zakynthos. A few days later, he tragically died in hospital in Athens. Almost a year later, on 26 June 2008, my constituent, Andrew Symeou, was arrested under the European arrest warrant and charged with the manslaughter of Jonathan Hiles.

More than a year later, on 23 July 2009, Andrew was extradited to Greece, where he has been detained since. Until November, he was detained in a juvenile prison in Avlona. Since then, he has been held at the notorious maximum security Korydallos prison. Amnesty International and other non-governmental organisations have repeatedly raised serious concerns about conditions in Korydallos, which they believe amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, including poor hygiene in cells, lack of access to association, fresh air, exercise facilities and prompt medical treatment.

Andrew, a student at Bournemouth university, with a bright future, no history whatever of law-breaking and a string of impeccable testimonials and character references from his teachers, is now forced to share a cell with convicted murderers, rapists and drug smugglers. He has twice been denied bail, even though he has, at every stage of the investigation, fully co-operated with the police, and even though his uncle, who has a property in Athens, has offered his home as a fixed address where Andrew could reside.

In the first instance, Andrew was denied bail on the ground that he is a foreign national—he was therefore perceived to be a flight risk. The European convention on human rights, to which Greece is a signatory, makes clear that discrimination on the basis of national origin is unlawful. An appeal was lodged against the refusal of bail. For months, neither my constituent nor his legal team, never mind British officials in Greece, who inquired about the status of the application on a number of occasions, were given any information about when the appeal was likely to be heard. In fact, the appeal was denied before my constituent or his legal team were actually informed that an appeal was taking place—before Andrew’s lawyer could make any oral arguments to the judge, and before Andrew was given the right to defend himself or argue his case.

Article 6 of the ECHR provides defendants with the right to defend themselves in person or through legal assistance of their choosing. When Andrew was finally informed that his application for bail had been refused, he was informed only in Greek. He was given a document written in Greek and told by one of the prison guards to sign it, even though he could not read it. When he initially refused, he was told he had no choice. When Andrew requested that the document be sent to his lawyer, the guard refused. When Andrew asked to speak to his parents, the guard said no. Under the European convention on human rights, detainees have an unambiguous and unqualified legal right to receive any documentation pertaining to their case in a language they understand. But Andrew was not afforded this right.

Andrew’s legal team in the UK are currently preparing an application to the European Court of Human Rights on these grounds. But we know that applications of this kind can take months, if not years, to be processed. If the Greek authorities will not give Andrew a fair hearing, who will ensure that his rights are protected? Surely the British Government have a duty to step in when the rights of their citizens are threatened. On that precise point. I ask the Minister to make representations to the Greek authorities requesting that a date is set for Andrew’s trial promptly and that the decision not to grant him bail pending trial is reconsidered and that he granted it.

There are, in addition, serious inconsistencies in the case file, which my constituent’s legal team has obtained, and which it believes are suggestive of a serious abuse of process. The case file that allegedly implicates Andrew consists of witness statements given by seven individuals. Two of these statements were given by friends of Andrew on 24 July. They were held at the police station for more than eight hours, deprived of food and water, beaten—allegedly—and threatened by police officers until they gave false statements implicating Andrew. This was reported to the British embassy in Greece at the time, although, as I understand it, the case was never pursued. The friends have, in addition, subsequently returned to Greece in June 2009 and testified, under oath, that the statements they gave were false and only obtained under duress. Both young men have made it clear that they did not see who punched Jonathan Hiles.

More worrying, though, is that even though the public prosecutor is aware of the allegations, she has so far refused to acknowledge that anything of the sort could possibly have ever happened. In her proposal to the judicial counsel of Zante, without even bothering to have investigated the allegations, which all of us would agree are serious in their own right and clearly relevant to the case against Andrew, she dismisses the allegations out of hand as “trite” and claims that

“nothing of the kind had occurred.”

How can she assert with such confidence and certainty that nothing of the kind occurred, if the allegations have never been investigated? If this is the cavalier attitude to justice that Andrew can anticipate when the case comes to court, how can he expect to receive a fair trial?

The other five witness statements in the case file were given by friends of Jonathan Hiles. They too suggest an abuse of process in the gathering of evidence and the production of written statements. These five statements, which were taken at different times on different days, are word-for-word identical—not just similar, not just alike, but word-for-word identical. How likely is it that five witnesses being interviewed at different times on different days would provide officers with statements that are word-for-word identical?

When the details are probed further, even more discrepancies come to light. On all of the statements that were taken, the name of the officer is recorded. When the five statements are put together, they show that Zante police officers were, somehow, holding interviews with different individual witnesses at the very same time. That is not simply improbable, unlikely or suspicious: it is a physical impossibility. Those officers could not have been in different places at the same time. What gives me greater cause for concern is the fact that the statements bear no resemblance to statements that were subsequently given to South Wales police as part of a coroner’s inquiry into Jonathan’s death. Four of the five remaining witnesses have categorically stated that they did not see who punched Jonathan, but in their statements to police in Zante each one of the witnesses allegedly says, in reference to Andrew:

“I identified with complete certainty and I am absolutely sure that the individual the perpetrator”.

By contrast, in their statements to South Wales police, the same witnesses deny having ever seen who punched Jonathan. One witness said:

“I did not recognise anybody on these I said I didn’t see the incident”.

The only witness who did say that he saw Jonathan being punched described the perpetrator as being over six feet tall and blond. Neither of those descriptions bears any resemblance whatever to Andrew. So, of the seven witness statements that allegedly implicate him, two have since been withdrawn, four are contradicted by statements made in the UK in which the same witnesses categorically state that they did not see who punched Jonathan, and one—the only witness statement in which a perpetrator is actually identified—describes an attacker who bears no resemblance to Andrew.

I understand that the British Government have no direct jurisdiction over the judicial affairs of another country, but when the rights of one of our citizens are threatened, the Government have a duty to step in. It is no consolation to tell my constituent that all this will come to light in any subsequent trial. If the Greek authorities refuse to acknowledge, let alone investigate, any wrongdoing by the police, even though there is considerable evidence to suggest there has been some, if they abuse Andrew’s rights by denying him legal advice and refusing him bail and if they refuse to question him or to afford him the right to defend himself against the allegations, why should he believe that he will receive a fair trial? All that he and his family have ever sought is a fair hearing. Andrew has never sought to avoid the opportunity to clear his name; nor has he tried to avoid justice. He has made it clear on countless occasions that he is willing to co-operate with the police. Indeed, his legal team have contacted Scotland Yard and South Wales police and urged them to investigate. Those are not the actions of someone who is trying to avoid justice.

Surely, wherever they are in the world, any British citizen who is pursuing justices should be able to rely on their Government to uphold their most basic rights. In this case, the potential for suffering is obvious and the need for justice is urgent. In the absence of any legal impediment that prevents them from doing so, surely the British Government have an obligation to take up Andrew’s case—and Jonathan’s case—with the Greek authorities.

Today, we reflect not only on the detention of Andrew Symeou, but on the tragic and untimely death of Jonathan Hiles and the suffering that it has brought to his family and friends. Jonathan cannot face a jury; his life was cut short in an act of mindless and senseless violence, but his memory deserves justice, as do his friends and family. They deserve better than this shoddy investigation that is so obviously marred by inconsistencies and anomalies. Another injustice will bring them no comfort. It is in the interest of everyone—Andrew, the family and friends of Jonathan Hiles and the Greek judicial system itself—for this case to be fully and openly investigated, but that will not be possible unless and until the British Government make representations in the clearest possible terms to the Greek authorities to prevent a miscarriage of justice. One young man has lost his life, and I urge the Minister to do everything he can to ensure that we do not ruin the life of another.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), not only for securing this debate at a timely point, as she said, but for pursuing this case and many others affecting her constituents with determination, clear-sightedness and, as we have heard this evening, forensic determination. I know that she is a diligent constituency MP, and I pay tribute to her for that. One issue that she has taken particularly seriously is Cyprus, so it is perhaps ironic that we are talking now about a case in Greece.

As my right hon. Friend did, I pass on my condolences to the family of Jonathan Hiles. As she said, it is particularly difficult for someone to lose a young son but even more difficult to do so in a foreign clime where they do not understand the criminal justice system or speak the language. That means that it is very difficult for the family to arrange things conveniently and easily. She is absolutely right that the pursuit of not any old justice but a fair trial and justice is essential for the family of Jonathan Hiles, and that is obviously the outcome that we want.

I wish also to pass on my sympathy to the family of Andrew Symeou, because just as it has been horrendously difficult for Jonathan Hiles’s family, so this must have been a very difficult time for the Symeou family. It is not for me to judge the rights and wrongs of the case, but whenever a British citizen is caught up in the criminal justice system in another country it is phenomenally difficult for their family. There are costs involved in travelling to support somebody and there are worries about having to deal with a legal system in a foreign language and a system built on very different premises from our own. Notwithstanding the fact that Greece is another member state of the EU, the criminal justice and prison system are clearly different from ours.

I thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff in Greece, who often deal with very complicated issues surrounding criminal justice and British citizens abroad. I am keen to ensure that they have the skills and support they need to support British citizens when they are abroad.

My right hon. Friend knows that there are certain things that we can do. We can definitely provide welfare and support for a British citizen abroad. That is the single most important thing we can do, and we try to do it as diligently and swiftly as we possibly can. We can also, of course, take up justified complaints about the treatment of British citizens when it is not in line with international standards or when there has been a clear case of discrimination against the person involved. I hear her points about human rights and whether people are treated equally everywhere in the EU, which are very important.

I hope that my right hon. Friend and Andrew’s family will understand that there are also some things that we cannot do. I know that she was not asking me to, but we cannot seek preferential treatment for a British citizen compared with the treatment that a Greek citizen would receive. We cannot get someone out of prison just because they are a British citizen, and we cannot interfere in the judicial process. That is key, because if we think about it the other way around, how would people in Britain feel if a Greek Minister rang me up and asked me to interfere in a court in the Rhondda, in Manchester or wherever, to try to get somebody released on bail or allowed to go back home pending trial? I know exactly what the courts would say in this country: “You have absolutely no power, because the separation of power between the courts and Parliament is a fundamental premise of how we do business.” From the forensic work and the compelling arguments she has presented, I know that my right hon. Friend understands that difficult element of the process. This is a particularly difficult case, because Mr. Symeou might well be held, pending trial, for up to 18 months, which is a very long time. I understand that. We would always much prefer to see swifter justice, because slow justice is no justice.

Bail is a matter entirely for the Greek legal authorities—not the political authorities—just as would be the case in Britain. I understand that a further appeal will be held before judges next week or the week after, and I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend again afterwards. I know that the family have concerns about a series of inconsistencies in how the case has been presented, many of which have been mentioned this afternoon, and I would expect those to be brought before the court by Mr. Symeou’s legal team, because in the end only the court can make a decision.

I would like to reassure my right hon. Friend that we have continued to monitor Mr. Symeou’s case since his extradition to Greece last July, and consular staff in Zakynthos, Athens and London have provided consular assistance to Mr. Symeou and his family, and I shall ensure that they continue to do so. We have visited him twice, once in Avlona prison and more recently in Korydallos prison, and Mr. and Mrs. Symeou have attended meetings at the British embassy in Athens to discuss their son’s case with consular staff. Although there are many things that we cannot do, there are things that we will continue to do.

On 25 November, our ambassador in Athens met the new Greek Justice Minister and took the opportunity to raise with him a number of consular cases, including that of Andrew Symeou. The Greek Minister advised him that the case was progressing through the Greek judicial system in the usual way, although I understand that that is not much consolation to anyone, because the usual way is a rather slow way. However, in conversations with my Greek counterparts, I am more than happy to make the same case as the ambassador made.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will be assured that we will continue to provide Mr. Symeou and his family with all the appropriate consular assistance while he remains in Greece, and I very much hope that she will keep in touch with me.

I thank the Minister for offering a further meeting after the legal proceedings, but may Mr. and Mrs. Symeou be present at that meeting? They would appreciate the opportunity to talk directly to the Minister and me rather than having to use me as a go-between.

I should have made that clear. I had intended it to be a meeting not only with my right hon. Friend, but with the family. I am more than happy to do that. I understand their difficult circumstances. This Government stand ready to provide whatever reassurance and support is possible, so I am more than happy to give that assurance.

I am not sure that I can say much more at this point, but as I said I am more than happy to meet the family and my right hon. Friend, to whom I pay tribute.

I asked whether the Minister could, as the Minister for Europe, make further representations to the Greek Justice Minister and any other member of the Greek Government whom he thinks might have, or whom we can identify as having, an important role in the matter. I am horrified when we talk about the “usual way”. I cannot believe that the Greek Government would want it to be said that the usual way for justice to progress in Greece is for there to be total injustice.

It is not for me to judge whether there is justice or injustice. In the end, we are talking about a legal proceeding and that question is for the court. I am visiting Turkey this weekend and expect my Greek counterpart, Mr. Droutsas, to be at one of the events that I am attending on Saturday. I am more than happy to assure my right hon. Friend that I shall raise the case with him.

Unless my right hon. Friend wants to intervene on me again, let me pay tribute to her for the way in which she has devoted herself to this constituency case. As I have said, I am more than happy to meet her and the family, and to raise the case with my Greek counterpart.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.