Trials and tribulations

As the holiday season begins, one group of lawyers has never been busier. Jon Robins meets Stephen Jakobi, the face of Fair Trials Abroad

Well I think we can assume it’s an unfair trial if it’s in France,” sighs the director of pressure group Fair Trials Abroad (FTA) Stephen Jakobi. From lorry drivers found with contraband in their cargoes by French customs in Calais, to back-packing students on their gap year busted in Thailand for drug smuggling and even British Muslims caught up in the legal no man’s land of Guantanamo Bay – it is all in a day’s work for Jakobi’s group.

The 69-year-old solicitor, who has been campaigning on behalf of European captives at Guantanamo Bay at EU level, is catching up on his day’s agenda over the phone with a colleague as The Lawyer meets him. He is also contemplating the ramifications of a recent decision by the Supreme Court that detainees at Guantanamo – there are almost 600 non-US citizens, including four Britons – can avail themselves of the US legal system to challenge their detention. He says that defence lawyers are going to have to employ a habeas corpus writ master to process the thousands of applications to bombard the US government.

When The Lawyer profiled Jakobi six years ago, the article began with the wise observation that “you could learn a lot about a man from his shoes”. Jakobi, with a grey suit, plain tie, and greying hair, was every bit the solicitor, except for a trendy pair of trainers that revealed “a man who does his own thing”. From the ankles up, the solicitor remains unchanged, but this time he is sporting a more questionable line in footwear – a combination of heavy duty sandals with black socks. However, the point holds true, Jakobi is an unconventional lawyer.

The last few months have been hectic for the group that fights for the rights of European citizens who have fallen foul of the law outside their own country. “Micro-human rights” is how Jakobi has described the work that FTA, a registered charity, does in defence of individuals’ rights. The media-savvy lawyer has been fighting for 12 years in defence of high-profile and frequently controversial clients, including former nanny Louise Woodward, the British plane spotters charged with espionage in Greece and, last month, Garry Mann, the fire-fighter found guilty of being the ringleader of football violence on the Algarve.

The Mann case, which was heard at Uxbridge magistrates’ court last week, and the Guantanamo work has guaranteed FTA and Jakobi unprecedented exposure throughout the summer. However, the group is keen to be seen as not just a one-man band. Jakobi is backed by deputy director Sarah de Mas and case worker Sabine Zanker, who deal with most of the calls from the families of those who have come into conflict with the law around the world. The group also runs an FTA criminal practitioners’ legal advisory panel of 25 lawyers throughout Europe. While Jakobi handles the press, he no longer takes on most of the case work.

Mann’s case is a good one for the charity because it illustrates what Jakobi calls “the variable geometry of human rights in Europe”. “Let’s face it,” he says, “a foreigner will always be convicted in a number of countries – never mind the state of the evidence. Nobody gets acquitted – except very, very rarely – in Portugal, Spain, France and Belgium.”

Mann is not the first alleged English football hooligan that FTA has helped and Jakobi believes that mann is not the first to receive rough justice as a result of heavy-handed policing. However, this time, the Home Secretary David Blunkett also piled in and promised to “nail” the 46-year-old fire fighter, who travelled to Portugal with his brother and a group of regulars from his local pub in Faversham.

What does Jakobi make of the Home Secretary’s intervention? He has previously dismissed the outburst as a populist diatribe. “It’s not just that he’s merely speaking out of turn,” he says, “but with regard to what’s going on in the courts in this country it’s more serious. There’s a serious problem in saying that he is going to ‘nail’ someone while criminal proceedings are in place in this country.”

Mann was accused of throwing a bottle at police and urging others to do the same. He was sentenced to two years in prison by a Portuguese court. As he was led away from Albufeira criminal court by military police, he shouted: “I wasn’t even there. It’s a stitch-up.”

Jakobi had little faith in the fast-track Portuguese criminal procedure which saw Mann taken to court, found guilty of instigating a riot and sentenced, all just one day after his arrest. The lawyer was instructed a short time before Mann went into court and was “totally appalled by the conduct of the case”. “It really gives no chance for defendants’ rights to be recognised,” he says. “There was only 15 hours between arrest and conviction. You can’t have a fair trial in these circumstances, no matter how hard you try.” The judge branded Mann the ringleader and handed down the two-year sentence. However, he was deported before he served any time in prison and, consequently, could not be imprisoned in the UK.

“It was one of the lowest-standard trials we’ve come across in Europe,” says Jakobi. He also points out that the only interpreter present was sacked in the middle of the case and a new one appointed. Instead of starting again, the proceedings continued and, according to the lawyer, left Mann unaware of much of the case against him. The fireman claims to have been sitting in a nearby café with friends when the fighting started. According to Jakobi, his version of events is backed by his friends’ evidence as well as CCTV evidence from the café. “It would take a lot to persuade me that he was guilty,” he says.

Jakobi claims to have seen it all before when he represented Mark Forrester, who was accused of being a ringleader in the violence at the Euro 2000 tournament in Belgium. The lawyer recalls that the whole episode was “full of skulduggery and police villainy”. Eventually, Forrester’s conviction was quashed by the Belgian constitutional court.

Away from the headline-grabbing cases, there are longer-term projects. One third of FTA’s caseload relates to the plight of lorry drivers imprisoned on the Continent. “They are a large constituent group of ours and their problems reflect the problems that any other traveller has,” explains Sarah de Mas. “They often end up with illegal goods in their load. A percentage of those have no knowledge of the illegal goods and have no wish to take part in any illegal activity, but they’re immediately assumed to be guilty.”

Frequently, insurers make it a condition that drivers are not allowed to check their loads. The charity was involved in the case of Leeds trucker Paul Watson, who spent nine months in jail and, despite being freed on bail, is still unable to leave France. He was imprisoned in France after his lorry was found to contain a ton of cannabis rather than the consignment of pottery he thought he was delivering from Spain to the Netherlands last year. Watson has always maintained his innocence.

FTA is presently looking for £25,000 in funding to take on a case worker to research the problems faced by road hauliers. “This is the sort of work we want to do. It’s an area where there’s a huge problem, and where helping individuals isn’t going to bring about the changes that are necessary. We need to work at a policy level and shine a light,” says de Mas.

Like many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the FTA’s financial health is perilous. “We’re never off the critical list, let’s put it that way,” says Jakobi. Apart from one year, the solicitor has never been paid for his work. “Luckily, I’m an old man with a pension fund, my mortgage is paid, my children have grown up and the financial demands aren’t great,” he says. But, as Jakobi plans to retire soon, he is keen to leave the charity on a more secure footing.

Last year, the total funds for FTA were just £105,874, with three-quarters of that coming from grants from the likes of the Nuffield Foundation, the Sobell Foundation and the Law Society. In that 12-month period, it took on 338 new cases, and it dealt with and closed 65 while 81 remained active.

“We would like to do everything to normal legal professional standards, but there are all sorts of handicaps,” says Jakobi. “People just have to remember we’re a voluntary organisation and we do the best we can. There’s no one else doing anything like we’re doing anywhere in the world, so there you are.”

As a consequence of being a cash-strapped NGO, there is little money for visiting those detained abroad, unless the families are paying. Earlier in the year, Sarah de Mas went to the Dominican Republic to visit Marianne Telfer, a registered care manager from Colchester. She was imprisoned when her boyfriend Richard Slack, who had swallowed bags of cocaine without her knowledge, collapsed and died.

She faced a series of charges from homicide to drug smuggling. “We set off to the Dominican Republic with the sole purpose of interviewing the lawyer who the family believed was corrupt,” says de Mas. “We found that he was totally corrupt and was just happy to keep her behind bars, because then he had a job and could charge vast amounts of money.” There were then problems finding a suitable lawyer. They were advised that the minimum charge for acting in drugs cases would be anything from $10,000 (£5,500) to $25,000 (£13,600), which was around 10 years’ income for many local lawyers. Eventually, they found a good lawyer and last month Telfer returned to the UK after a series of court hearings. Her ordeal was brought to an end when five judges dropped the charges against her, but not after she spent four months in a series of cockroach-infested jails. “My admiration for the families in these cases is absolute,” says Jakobi. “They cope in a way I don’t know I would. It’s a nightmare situation.”

Jakobi on Guantanamo:

Wallaby review panels for Kangaroo courts
“The grisly farce of the Guantanamo debacle continues,” says Jakobi, who is legal adviser to the European Parliament on Guantanamo, referring to last month’s news from Washington concerning the proposed prisoner status review panels for the inmates. The Pentagon has announced that it will create military review panels to consider the legality of detentions at Guantanamo, as a response to the recent Supreme Court ruling that entitled prisoners to challenge their detentions in US courts.

“We now have a hastily constructed military review panel procedure designed to forestall applications to US civil courts for release,” says Jakobi. According to the lawyer, “objectionable features” include the denial of legal representation and a burden of proof on the prisoner to show they are being detained unlawfully. He says that it represents “the creation of a Wallaby panel to complement the Kangaroo courts.”

“The announcement of further candidates for trial add insult to injury for all the national governments, including the British, who have made plain their concern about the mode of trial,” says Jakobi.

He notes that the Spanish, the Danes and the British have had some of their citizens return home while the French and Belgian prisoners have been left behind. “Bush isn’t concerned with justice or terrorism, he’s concerned with Iraq,” he says. “It’s as blatant and as obvious as that.”

He also raises concerns about the possible detention of European citizens in other US controlled territories, such as Bagram Airport. “We’re aware of at least one in the pipeline,” he says. “We must call upon the national governments to ensure, as a matter of urgency, US civil legal representation for all citizens under their protection.”