France: Council of Europe human rights commissioner presents damning report
A report published by the Council of Europe human rights commissioner, Mr. Alvaro Gil-Robles, in relation to his visit to France in September 2005 contains criticism of the legal system, detention conditions, the prosecution of abuses committed by members of the police and the treatment of members of ethnic minorities.
The legal system
In relation to the legal system, the report notes that several professionals referred to the "knee-jerk passing of new legislation in response to social problems" and to a "legislative rainstorm" that makes it difficult for lawyers and judges to keep up with developments and "may well create a problem of legal insecurity". Conditions in some holding facilities for detainees appearing before judges in courthouses are described as "disastrous" and "totally at odds with modern requirements", and lack of funding for the court system is linked with problems including the slowness of the judicial process, which has resulted in a number of past rulings by the European Court of Human Rights which have condemned France.
With regards to prisons, the report notes that "French prisons have been suffering chronic overcrowding for many years" and statistics indicate that the number of prisoners is growing (with 57,163 detainees on 1 November 2005, of whom over 20,000 were awaiting trial). Detainees in prisons where the number of inmates exceeds the capacity are reported as undergoing "double punishment", and the Commissioner describes some of the situations he witnessed as "distressing and shocking", and conditions in custody cells in "many police stations visited" are also condemned as "deplorable" with detainees not even provided with mattresses or bed linen, and thus sleeping on the floor. Other aspects that are highlighted in the report include restrictions on phone calls and visits, the high cost of services and products in prisons, and the loss of entitlement to social benefits and assistance that prisoners face following their release. With regards to disciplinary regimes the Commissioner welcomes the introduction of procedure for prisoners to appeal disciplinary measures taken against them, although the prison director still has great power and the disciplinary board does not guarantee independence as its members are part of a hierarchical body, and the maximum period during which a prisoner may be detained in a "disciplinary cell" is 45 days (for very serious offences), far longer than is the case in other EU countries. The fact that placing a prisoner in solitary confinement is largely an administrative decision by the prison director is considered a situation that increases "the risk of abuses of prisoners' rights". Moreover, "it is particularly disturbing to see that solitary confinement may be ordered for an indefinite period, despite its frequently harmful effects on the mental state of the persons subjected to it".
On the subject of policing, after noting that "no abuse of power should be tolerated by the state", the reports mentions a number of "lingering concerns". These include reports in Seine-Saint-Denis about instances of violence and rape by police officers, a 34% increase in cases of police brutality filed before the National Commission on Police Ethics (CNDS), a large proportion of which are filed by people who are non-nationals or nationals who have foreign origins, and the report also highlights that officers do not have a duty to identify themselves to members of the public if asked to do so. Point 180 of the report notes that:
"Yet, it would seem that at present the prevailing mood among police officers is one of impunity. As a result, few cases of police violence result in convictions which are proportionate to the offences committed. Procedures are highly complicated for victims and investigations are a delicate matter. The sense of mutual loyalty between the different branches of the security forces accounts partly for the fact that statements very often match one another perfectly. In many cases, police officers anticipate the victims' complaints and file their own complaints for insults to or the obstruction of officers in the course of their duties."
In this context, the freezing of funding for the CNDS surprised the Commissioner, who calls for a reform to extend its powers and to introduce a suitable increase in its budget.
Refugees and asylum-seekers
With regards to the conditions experienced by foreign nationals, the report notes that France "is the country that grants refugee status to the largest number of applicants", although recent developments in immigration and asylum policy have meant that "the stricter understanding of asylum now prevailing in France is likely to undermine the rights of genuine asylum seekers". A number of irregularities are noted in relation to detention in "waiting zones" and the conditions of asylum applicants awaiting the outcome of their applications, and the list of safe countries (allowing applications from nationals of these countries to be systematically refused) that has been adopted by French asylum authorities includes: Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cape Verde, Croatia, Georgia, Ghana, India, Mali, Mauritius, Mongolia, Senegal and Ukraine. Gil-Robles notes that "Both the principle and the composition of this list raise a number of questions. I doubt very much whether all these countries can be considered safe countries of origin." The speeding up of asylum procedure, affecting a majority of cases, is viewed as "extremely short for careful examination of applications". In relation to conditions within existing detention centres, the report calls for the closing down of the Marseille-Arenc centre in August 2006. The men's holding centres below the Palais de Justice in Paris are described as "disastrous and unworthy of France", and as affording detainees "inhuman and degrading conditions". In relation to the European charter flights to remove foreigners that have been used by France, the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain, Gil-Robles notes that apart from the serious issues of lawfulness that this practice entails (it has already been found unlawful by the French Conseil d'État), it could only take place if each deportee is previously examined on case-by-case basis.
The report also examines the situation of minors, including attempts to lower the age of criminal responsibility, which he feels would "compound the problem" of juvenile delinquency, the rise in acts of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, and measures that should be adopted to counter it, and the situation of travellers and Roma, and of other especially vulnerable groups.
Source: Report by Mr. Álvaro Gil-Robles, Commissioner for Human Rights, on the effective respect for human rights in France, following his visit from 5 to 21 September 2005.
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