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France: Council of Europe human rights commissioner presents damning report
01 February 2006
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