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Coronavirus: France extends detentions and suspends trials, raising rights concerns

The Villeneuve-les-Maguelones prison near Montpellier pictured on March 26, 2020.
The Villeneuve-les-Maguelones prison near Montpellier pictured on March 26, 2020. © Pascal Guyot, AFP

French authorities have released inmates from overcrowded prisons as part of efforts to deal with the coronavirus outbreak but others have seen their detentions extended as trial dates are suspended.

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The International Prison Observatory alleges that prisoners' rights are being curtailed as authorities implement new emergency rules to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

One inmate was accused of misconduct shortly after lockdown came into effect in France on March 17. He denied violating prison rules but was summoned to a disciplinary hearing headed by the prison director. Because of new social distancing rules, the inmate's lawyer was unable to represent him and he was sent into isolation.

“This incident shows that inmates have seen their rights limited since the outbreak,” Cécile Marcel, director of the Paris-based International Prison Observatory, told FRANCE 24.

Days after France went into lockdown, the French parliament voted to declare a public health emergency on March 22, with the government issuing several emergency orders that altered legal procedures.   

Lawyers, for example, now have less access to their clients due to social distancing rules. When a suspect is arrested, he is no longer entitled to have a lawyer with him in the interrogation room.

“In the current situation we can’t assist our clients when they get arrested,” attorney Muriel Ouaknine-Melki told FRANCE 24. “Sometimes we can communicate via video calls, but some police stations don’t have the necessary equipment. Suspects are pretty much left alone during questioning.” 

After being questioned by police, a suspect is taken before a prosecutor and a judge who then decide whether he or she should be detained until trial. 

“Lawyers can’t attend hearings in person and we often can’t communicate by video because not all courts have functioning video systems. Court hearings often end up taking place without any proper defence,” Ouaknine-Melki said. 

Since the nationwide lockdown began in mid-March, French courts have been at a standstill and most trials have been postponed. But there are some exceptions; trials for serious crimes are still going ahead and lawyers are allowed to take part directly. But in most other cases, a defence team is now required to send evidence by email and make its arguments over the phone.

Judges are also concerned about the effects the coronavirus outbreak is having on the legal system. Magistrates' associations have written to Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet about her decision to extend the pretrial detention of suspects whose cases have been postponed. The problem, they say, is that the extensions go into force automatically, without any debate between the defense and the prosecution. 

“Automatically extending all temporary detentions by several months threatens the rule of law,” the French magistrates’ union wrote in an April 4 statement.

Other detainees released

The justice ministry told FRANCE 24 that all current detentions are perfectly legal. It defended the emergency order it passed on March 25 listing the changes to legal procedures that were meant to protect the courts and prisons from experiencing complications during the Covid-19 epidemic. 

The changes “preserve the rights of all citizens”, the ministry said in a press statement.  

But some point out that the definition of what is “legal” expands significantly during a state of emergency.

“These decisions are legal only because the government has taken emergency measures. Once you vote to approve texts that allow you to ignore the law, then indeed these actions become legal,” attorney Vincent Brengarth of Bourdon & Associates told FRANCE 24. “Are these measures even constitutional? Extending pretrial detention without discussing it is unprecedented in our recent legal history.”

The justice ministry told FRANCE 24 that the number of prisoners in France has fallen overall due to early releases because overcrowded prisons are a great source of risk during an epidemic.

“There are 6,266 fewer detainees since the lockdown started,” said the ministry’s spokesperson, Agnès Thibault-Lecuivre. “Detainees with less than two months left on their sentences have been released early. There are also fewer trials and therefore fewer convictions. And some detainees in pretrial detention have been released.”

Despite a reduction in the number of detainees France’s prisons are still severely overcrowded, with 66,000 people living in prisons designed for only 61,080.  

“Those conditions make lockdown and social distancing impossible,” Marcel of the International Prison Observatory told FRANCE 24.

“There are two, three and sometimes four inmates in one nine-square-metre cell. Moreover, prisoners don’t have easy access to soap and water, and hydroalcoholic disinfectant gel is banned,” said Marcel. “The prison guards don’t all have masks and they have to search inmates with their bare hands.”

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