A proposed French law to further detain offenders after serving their sentences would violate the right to liberty and undermine the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said today. The French senate is due to debate a government-sponsored bill introducing the measure on January 30.
The government of Nicolas Sarkozy wants to create so-called “socio-medico-legal detention centers” for individuals who were sentenced to 15 or more years in prison for a violent crime. The measure comes after two horrifying attacks by repeat sexual criminals in 2007.
“Locking people up on speculation that they might commit some future crime undermines hundreds of years of criminal justice in France,” said Jean-Marie Fardeau, Paris director of Human Rights Watch. “The Senate should reject this measure as unacceptable.”
Under the proposed bill, a three-judge special commission would have the authority to impose an additional one-year jail term if an offender is found to be dangerous and likely to reoffend by a multidisciplinary panel of experts. The one-year detention periods could be renewed indefinitely, and could only be challenged in a three-judge appeals commission based in Paris. There would be a limited right of appeal to the Court of Cassation, the court of last resort for points of law.
The measure was originally aimed only at those convicted of violent crimes against children. But the National Assembly amended the bill in early January to include offenders convicted of serious violence against adults. An eleventh-hour amendment also made the measure retroactive for all those convicted prior to the law taking effect but who have not completed their sentence by September 1, 2008.
The Law Commission of the Senate has proposed a number of amendments, including eliminating the provision allowing for retroactive application.
The proposed preventive detention scheme violates fair trial standards guaranteed in the European Convention on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch said, including the right to the presumption of innocence, protection against arbitrary detention, and the right not to be punished twice for the same crime. Depriving someone of their freedom is only lawful for a legitimate and explicitly permitted purpose in law and subject to adequate procedural guarantees, including the right to challenge the deprivation of liberty, independent periodic review and compensation for unlawful deprivation of liberty.
“Whatever the French government says, internment in these centers amounts to a double punishment for the same crime,” said Fardeau. “And it could mean for some that a 15-year sentence becomes a life sentence.”
France already has measures in place to ensure psychiatric confinement for those who pose a direct threat to themselves or others. There are also mechanisms to monitor certain categories of convicted criminals upon release, such as requirements to register with the police and the use of electronic bracelets. The effectiveness of these measures should be assessed fully before restrictions on liberty are contemplated. To date, neither has been.
The bill was introduced after a convicted pedophile abducted and raped a 5-year-old boy in August 2007, while a convicted rapist attempted to sexually assault and then stabbed to death a 23-year-old journalism student on a commuter train outside Paris in November 2007.
A broad spectrum of opinion opposes the proposed law, including national human rights nongovernmental organizations, the national bar association, a union of judges, and Robert Badinter, a former justice minister. In a general comment on life sentences, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg has also expressed concern about the compatibility of measures of this type with the rule of law.