Court Upholds Extradition Orders in Face of Prison Violence Concerns: Evaldas Urbonas v The Prosecutor General's Office of the Republic of Lithuania

Citation: [2024] EWHC 33 (Admin)
Judgment on

Introduction

The case of Evaldas Urbonas v The Prosecutor General’s Office of the Republic of Lithuania deals with appeals concerning extradition orders. The key legal inquiry in this case was whether the extradition of the appellants to Lithuania would breach Article 3 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. The matter rests on the real risk that the appellants might face violence or ill-treatment by other prisoners in the Lithuanian prison system, an issue highlighted by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) in their 2023 report.

Key Facts

The case involves three appellants (Mr. Urbonas, Mr. Zemaitis, and Mr. Surpickij) whose extradition to Lithuania had been ordered by the Westminster Magistrates’ Court for various offenses including bodily harm, theft, and manslaughter. The appellants appeal the extradition decisions on grounds that they would face a real risk of Article 3 violations in the Lithuanian prison system, particularly due to widespread inter-prisoner violence. The release of the 2023 CPT Report, which was not considered at the lower court levels, is pivotal to their appeal. This report documented ongoing violence originating from an informal prisoner hierarchy system, inadequate staff presence, and prevalent drug use within prisons.

Key legal principles articulated in this case are centered around the extradition framework, the operationalization of Article 3 of the Convention, and application of the principle of mutual trust and the presumption of compliance that member states will honor their Convention obligations.

Extradition Framework

The extradition framework is derived from Part III of Title VII of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom, as implemented into domestic law by the European Union (Future Relationships) Act 2020 and the Extradition Act 2003. Lithuania is a Part 1 territory for the purposes of the 2003 Act, meaning that extradition to Lithuania is governed by provisions under this Act.

Article 3 of the Convention

Interpreting Article 3, the Court reiterated that a State shall not extradite an individual to another country where substantial grounds exist to believe there is a real risk of being subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment. The threshold for Article 3 breaches depends on the severity of the treatment, with factors such as duration, physical and mental effects, and vulnerability (age, sex, health) considered.

Presumption of Compliance

Member states of the European Union are presumed to comply with their Convention obligations under Article 3. The presumption may be rebutted with “clear, cogent, and compelling evidence” of structural or systemic failings identified in authoritative sources like the CPT. Should evidence dispute the presumption, the requesting state, in this case Lithuania, must provide assurance that no real risk of Article 3 violation exists for the individual concerned.

Duty of Candour

The case also touches upon the duty of candour in extradition proceedings, which obligates the respondent to disclose evidence potentially undermining their case. The Court expresses provisional views on this but stops short of a definitive ruling.

Outcomes

The Court’s systematic analysis did not find substantial grounds to believe the presumption of Lithuania’s compliance with Article 3 obligations had been rebutted. While acknowledging the reality of inter-prisoner violence, the Court noted Lithuania’s active engagement in addressing the systemic issues. Measures such as increased staffing, improved staff-prisoner ratios, training programs, reductions in prison populations, infrastructure modernization, and legislative changes were deemed indicative of concerted efforts to mitigate risks of Article 3 violations. Given these developments, all three appeals were consequently dismissed.

Conclusion

The Divisional Court’s decision in Evaldas Urbonas v The Prosecutor General’s Office of the Republic of Lithuania underscores the nuanced balancing act between heeding the guidance of authoritative bodies like the CPT and acknowledging a member state’s ongoing efforts to reform and comply with human rights obligations. The case reaffirms the principle that the presumption of compliance with Article 3 is firmly rooted, yet not unassailable. Moreover, structural reforms and tangible measures to protect prisoners — when effectively communicated and implemented — can effectively maintain this presumption for member states amidst systemic challenges.

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