Swedish prisons

Swedish prisons

19 January 2011 by Pelle Neroth

Sweden's justice system is in the news at the moment because of efforts to extradite Julian Assange from the UK.

Assange, founder of the Wikileaks organisation, which recently published thousands of confidential American diplomatic cables, is wanted for questioning about alleged sexual offences. He denies any wrongdoing. The extradition hearing will be held in London in February.

Sweden's procedures for dealing with those accused of crimes are worthy of consideration, and indeed have been the subject of several reports by the Council of Europe.

Sweden is a harsher society than people think, and Swedish law, society and morality can be surprisingly authoritarian.

Prison chaplain Birgitta Winberg, who has gained huge experience of other nations' prison systems as president of the International Prison Chaplains' Association, visits Swedish prisoners on remand and thinks the world has a rosy view of her country.

Winberg describes Swedish remand prisons as the worst in Europe. 'In no other country are people in isolation before they are charged,' she said. A high proportion of prisoners - as much as 70 per cent at Kronoberg, in Stockholm - are placed under restrictions that may see them in their cells for 23 hours a day. Only visits from a lawyer and priest are allowed.

The prosecutor has to reapply to a judge for a remand extension every two weeks while amassing evidence that would justify charging the suspect, but it's usually a mere formality. Isolation makes it difficult to prepare a case, for example by securing an alibi.

Winberg said: 'Police and prosecutors are very powerful in Sweden, the odds are stacked against the defence. They represent the strong state and, once a suspect is arrested, there is this belief the state is always right.'

International organisations have also expressed concern at Swedish isolation policies. In a report published in December 2009, the Council of Europe wrote that, despite an 'ongoing dialogue' about remand conditions, Sweden had done little since previous visits and CoE concerns remained valid. The report said its delegates talked to remand prisoners and that the 'overwhelming majority had been given no explanation of the restrictions imposed on them. Many considered that the only reason why they were being prohibited contact with their family members was to 'break' them.'

The health of the accused is often severely strained. The report says many prisoners suffer a lack of concentration, memory disturbance, impaired communication skills, as well as various physical symptoms. 'Symptoms of anxiety disorder are commonly seen, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression can develop, and also agitation and self-harm.'

In its response, the Swedish government points out that, from an international point of view, the country has relatively short periods of detention. Also, a court may only base its judgement on what has been orally presented during the main hearing. 'This principle makes it important to ensure that a suspect does not undermine the investigation, for instance by talking to witnesses and victims in order to make them change their statements.'

A new law coming into force in April includes the possibility to appeal against the isolation restrictions, in line with CoE recommendations.

Further information:

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 19 January 2011 06:21 PM     General  

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