Posted: 01 December 2010
Suspected war criminals could be handed a ‘free ticket to escape the law’ - Kate Allen
Amnesty International has reacted with dismay at the announcement of new measures restricting the issuing of arrest warrants for suspected war criminals and torturers visiting the UK.
The measures, contained in a new Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill (part four, clause 151) published today, will, for the first time, mean that the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions will be required before an arrest warrant can be issued in such cases.
Under the principle of ”universal jurisdiction” those suspected of extremely grave offences like torture and war crimes can be prosecuted in the UK even if their crimes were committed outside the UK, and even if they were committed by non-UK nationals.
Recently the government has argued that the system is open to “abuse” by “political groups”, claiming that warrants can be obtained from magistrates on flimsy evidence - although it has failed to provide any examples of magistrates issuing them in such circumstances. Meanwhile, foreign governments are known to have lobbied the UK authorities for changes to the law.
Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:
“This sends exactly the wrong signal. It shows that the UK is soft on crime if those crimes are war crimes and torture.
“It risks introducing dangerous delays that could mean people suspected of the worst imaginable crimes are able to flee from justice.
“The current process allows victims of crimes under international law to act quickly against suspected perpetrators who could otherwise enter and leave the UK before police and prosecutors can act.
“As things stand, magistrates must carefully screen each request for a warrant, refusing those which fail to meet strict standards of evidence. There appear to have been no instances - and the UK government has provided none - of magistrates issuing arrest warrants based on 'flimsy evidence’ or of the system being abused.
“This is a dangerous and unnecessary change. Unless a way of guaranteeing a means of preventing suspects fleeing can be built into the proposals, then the UK will have undermined the fight for international justice and handed war criminals a free ticket to escape the law.
“Instead of weakening the law, the UK should be strengthening it to ensure that it can effectively fight crimes under international law.”
Under current UK law, victims of war crimes, torture and hostage-taking can mount private prosecutions against suspected perpetrators in any country, regardless of nationality or where the crime was committed, under the international rule of universal jurisdiction. Victims need to meet a high threshold of evidence in order to obtain an arrest warrant.