Robert Hörchner can only sleep for two hours at night before the sweating starts. His wife Annelies wakes up frequently, too; each time she hears a noise outside she opens the curtains, expecting to see police at the front door. The couple are traumatised because Robert spent 10 months locked up in a filthy Polish cell. He has been accused of holding the lease to a property where cannabis was grown but insists that he is innocent.
The ordeal began one evening in April 2007. Hörchner was eating a Chinese meal and sipping wine, when two policemen called to his home in Sint-Michielsgestel, close to the Dutch city of Eindhoven. The officers were courteous and allowed him to finish eating before they brought him to a nearby police station. Yet the only explanation they gave him for the arrest was that he was wanted for extradition by the Polish authorities.
First, he was held for three days in the Netherlands. Then – in October that year – he was flown to Warsaw; upon arrival, he was brought to a detention centre and forced at gunpoint to strip naked by guards with dogs. “They set the dogs on me and let them get really close, then pulled them back,” Hörchner, aged 58, said.
Six days later, he was transferred to a prison in Bydgoszcz, a city in northern Poland where he had previously worked. There were eight or nine others in his cell – all sharing the same toilet - for the duration of his imprisonment. Hygiene was a low priority in the nineteenth century building; each time he returned from the rat-infected exercise yard, he was overcome by the stench of excrement and urine in his cell. He developed a painful rash on his skin; his bedclothes became stained with his own blood. “I survived for only one reason,” he said. “I met a Polish guy in jail, who could speak a little bit of English. He was a parachutist and had done around 400 jumps. He found out that I was also a former parachutist and have done more than 1,000 jumps. His nickname was Grisly. I felt safe with him for the first three months.”
Hörchner had set up a textiles company in partnership with a Polish businessman in 1999. The relationship with that businessman – now in prison himself – was troubled. The businessman borrowed heavily from Hörchner. When Hörchner took steps to end the partnership, the businessman threatened him.
In March 2000, Hörchner’s car was burnt out. He was frightened by this incident and decided to leave Poland. One month later a cannabis plantation was found by the police in a building near Bydgoszcz. During Hörchner’s trial, it was stated that he held the lease for that premises. But when his lawyer eventually obtained the lease document recently – after many years of requesting it - the name of the leaseholder was Roberta Harschnera. Hörchner is adamant that the handwriting on the document is not his, that Harschnera is not an accurate Polish adaptation of his name and that he had never authorised anyone to fill out the document on his behalf. The document also suggests that the lease-holder belonged to a company called Albo but Hörcher says he never worked for a firm of that name.
Hörchner denies strenuously that he leased the building and says that he only visited the premises once - then in the company of his Polish business partner. Hörchner did not actually enter the building, he says, but waited in a car outside until his partner returned from the building.
Hörchner’s extradition took place under the European arrest warrant system. Originally approved by the European Union’s presidents and prime ministers in December 2001, the system was presented as part of an EU “anti-terrorism” package in response to the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 that year. Yet rather than being limited to serious crimes, some EU countries are using it to prosecute a wide variety of offences, many of which are trivial, according to civil liberties watchdogs. Poland, for example, has used the system in the past to seek the extradition of a carpenter who had removed a wardrobe door from a client who refused to pay him.
Data published by EU governments earlier this month shows that Poland issues most cross-border arrest warrants in the 27 country Union. During 2009, Poland issued 4,844 arrest warrants, almost exactly the same number as it did the previous year. The number of Polish warrants was over twice the number issued by Romania and France each: the second and third highest users of the system respectively. Unlike many other EU countries, Polish law requires that all suspected crimes are prosecuted, no matter how inconsequential they may seem.
Catherine Heard, a campaigner with the London-based organisation Fair Trials International, argued that a “proportionality test” should be introduced into the arrest warrant system. That test would allow authorities in one EU state to decide against processing an extradition order from another if it does not regard the alleged offence as sufficiently serious.
“The European arrest warrant was intended to improve cross-border cooperation and standards of justice but in too many cases this new system has resulted in grave injustice,” Heard said. “People are being ripped from their homes and families, to spend months awaiting trial in appalling conditions, to face charges based on the flimsiest of evidence, or to serve a jail sentence imposed after a grossly unfair trial. Vital safeguards must be built into the EU justice system or we will see more cases of injustice.”
Tony Bunyan from Statewatch, a civil liberties group, expressed concern about how a proposed new “European investigation order” would “go even further” than the arrest warrant system. Under the new proposal, authorities from one EU country can seek that individuals in another are placed under surveillance.
As EU governments consider broadening the scope of police and judicial cooperation in the Union, Robert Hörchner vows to keep fighting for a retrial. The arrest warrant system should be fundamentally rethought, he argues, so that it is limited to offences which can be defined as terrorist.
His wife Annelies said that their entire family – the couple have twin daughters, who have recently turned 27 – have suffered enormously. “For us, for our children, it’s a horror story.”
·First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net), 24 November 2010