Well, it has been another challenging year for everyone! We would like to thank all of our funders, partners and supporters who have helped us to continue the fight for fair, equal and just criminal legal systems. Here are some of our highlights from 2021 and we wish you a Happy New Year for 2022.
1. Making INTERPOL more transparent
Through media coverage in outlets such as la Libération, the Economist, the Times and Deutsche Welle, we continued to call for INTERPOL to be more transparent about its operations, including the readmittance of Syria to its membership and the election of its President. In November, we welcomed the news that delegates at INTERPOL's General Assembly voted to reform the procedures for nominating and electing its Executive Committee.
2. Challenging the use of AI in Europe's criminal legal systems
Artificial intelligence (AI) and automated decision-making (ADM) systems are increasingly used by European law enforcement and criminal justice authorities to profile people, predict their supposed future behaviour, and assess their alleged ‘risk’ of criminality or re-offending in the future. In our report Automating Injustice, we exposed how these systems reinforce discrimination and threaten the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. The report and our call for an outright ban on the use of AI to ‘predict criminality’ were cited in the media and by a number of MEPs when debating a proposal for new legislation to regulate the use of AI in the EU.
While they recognised the threats posed by AI, MEPs voted in favour of a proposal to extend Europol’s mandate. The proposal effectively gives Europol a blank cheque to use and further develop high risk artificial intelligence for policing. In an opinion piece, our Europe Legal Director Laure Baudrihaud-Gerard, outlined the threats that this poses.
3. Putting police station access on the agenda in the US Our campaign for the right to counsel in police stations is now firmly on the criminal justice reform agenda in the US. This year, the D.C. Police Reform Commission cited Fair Trials in a report that called for the DC Counsel to implement legislation to make sure that anyone who is arrested has access to a lawyer before they are interrogated by the police. Other states, including California, West Virginia and Maryland, have passed laws to ensure that children have this right. Listen to our US Legal Director Rebecca Shaeffer talk on the Decarceration Nation podcast about how lawyers in police stations could lead to systemic change of the US legal system.
Through freedom of information requests, we revealed that thousands of people were being held in pre-trial detention for over the legal limit of six months in England and Wales. We also exposed the devastating impact of being held in pre-trial detention during the pandemic. Our report, Locked up in Lockdown, contained first-hand accounts from people held in UK prisons, who told us about the extreme conditions they had to endure, which were coercing some into considering pleading guilty because it may mean a shorter time in detention.
5. Promoting the Mendez Principles in Latin America
The Méndez Principles provide best practice for interviews by law enforcement and they are a useful tool in the fight against torture. Read our Legal Director Rebecca Shaeffer’s opinion piece in Just Security on how the Méndez Principles could improve the integrity, accountability and oversight of law enforcement in the US.
Fair Trials’ Latin America Senior Legal Advisor Verónica Hinestroza, who was on the Steering Committee that created the Principles, hosted two events to launch the Principles in Spanish and Portuguese as part of Fair Trials' work to challenge torture in Central and South America.
6. Clearer protection for asylum seekers in the US
Fair Trials helped to create positive case law that will offer clearer protection for asylum seekers who face exclusion unfairly. The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed an earlier decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), which had relied on an INTERPOL Red Notice to deny asylum. Fair Trials submitted an amicus brief in the case. Allison Heimes, Immigration Lawyer at Carlson & Burnett said: “I believe [the amicus brief] truly helped my client obtain this win. The probable cause argument was the strongest one we had, and it was vital we had additional, factual support from Fair Trials in order to push us into win territory.” The US Congress has since passed legislation that could prevent people from facing arrest and detention solely on the basis of INTERPOL notices.
7. Better safeguards for plea bargaining
Overburdened criminal legal systems around the world are increasingly using plea bargaining and trial waivers to process cases as quickly as possible, and with little regard to justice. This year we created three films that explore the links between plea bargaining and mass incarceration, police oversight and racial justice. In Europe, we published the findings of research into trial waiver systems in Europe, which made recommendations about how the right to a fair trial can be protected in the face of the increased use of waivers.
Watch Plea Bargaining and Racial Justice
8. Raising awareness of risks posed by remote hearings
Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, there has been an increase in the use of remote hearings. Fair Trials has raised concerns that remote hearings will become the norm as governments think they are a more efficient way to deliver justice. In our paper, Digitalisation of Justice in the EU, we highlighted the risks posed when criminal justice decisions are made by videoconference.
In Latin America, remote hearings pose a threat to the fight against torture, which is why Fair Trials joined other human rights organisations to call on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to ban videoconferencing in initial or custody hearings across the region.
9. Protecting victims of violence in prison
According to the World Health Organisation,a shocking 25% of prisoners are victimized by violence each year. Following our work to raise awareness that people in detention are particularly vulnerable to violence, the European Commission incorporated detainees in its victims’ strategy.
10. Promoting access to lawyers in the UK
In the UK, anyone who has been arrested has the right to have a lawyer with them when they are being questioned by the police. Since April 2020, lawyers have been able to attend police station interviews remotely, despite having no legal basis to do so. Earlier this year, Fair Trials published a report highlighting the impact of this on children and vulnerable adults, which featured in the Guardian. In May, we welcomed the decision to end remote legal assistance for these groups.