United Kingdom: Grand Chamber hearing for prisoner fighting murder-charge US extradition

Later this month, human rights judges will hear legal arguments from a British prisoner facing murder charge extradition to the United States.

The European Court’s Grand Chamber hearing Harkins v. the United Kingdom (application no. 71537/14), will start on 11 January.

The applicant, Phillip Harkins, is a British national who was born in 1978 and is currently detained in HMP Belmarsh (the United Kingdom).

In 2000, Harkins was indicted in Florida for first degree murder and attempted robbery with a firearm. He was arrested in the UK in 2003 and the US authorities sought his extradition.

In a Diplomatic Note issued on 3 June 2005, the US Embassy assured the UK Government that the death penalty would not be sought. In June 2006 the British Secretary of State ordered Harkins’ extradition.

Harkins then complained unsuccessfully before the British courts that, if extradited, he risked execution or a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.

In 2007, the High Court found that there was no risk of execution if Harkins were to be extradited and, in 2011, it found that a life sentence without parole would not violate Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the meantime, in 2007, Harkins had applied to the European Court of Human Rights for the first time (Harkins and Edwards v. the United Kingdom, no. 9146/07). In January 2012, the court found that Harkin’s extradition would not violate Article 3 of the European Convention.

It rejected as inadmissible the complaint concerning the alleged risk of the death penalty, considering that the diplomatic assurances, provided by the US to the UK government, were clear and sufficient to remove any risk of Harkins being sentenced to death if extradited.

The court also found that the imposition of a mandatory life sentence in the US would not violate Article 3. He had been over 18 at the time of his alleged crime, had not been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, and the killing had been part of an armed robbery attempt – an aggravating factor.

Further, he had not yet been convicted, and – even if he were convicted and given a mandatory life sentence – keeping him in prison might continue to be justified throughout his life time. And if that were not the case, the Governor of Florida and the Florida Board of Executive Clemency could, in principle, decide to reduce his sentence.

Following this judgment, Harkins raised further issues domestically, which ultimately resulted in a decision by the High Court in November 2014. The High Court principally refused to re-open the proceedings, finding that the ECtHR judgments in the cases of Vinter and Others v. the United Kingdom1 (nos. 66069/09, 130/10 and 3896/10) of July 2013 and Trabelsi v. Belgium2 (no. 140/10) of September 2014, had not recast convention law to such an extent that Harkins’ extradition would result in a violation of Article 3 of the convention.

On 11 November 2014 Harkins applied to the European Court a second time. Relying on Articles 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) and 6 (right to a fair trial) of the convention, Harkins complains about his extradition to the USA, alleging that a first-degree murder conviction in the US carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

On 13 November 2014, the European Court of Human Rights granted an interim measure under Rule 39 of its Rules of Court, which indicated to the UK Government that he should not be extradited to the US until further notice.

The case was communicated3 to the UK government, with questions from the Court, on 31 March 2015. At the same time, the Chamber decided to grant the case priority under Rule 41 of the Rules of the Court. A statement of facts submitted to the government is available on the Court’s website.

On 5 July 2016, the Chamber to which the case had been allocated relinquished jurisdiction in favour of the Grand Chamber.

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