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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 20:41 GMT 21:41 UK
Widening the EU's criminal justice net
By Jonny Dymond
BBC News, Brussels

Michel Fourniret
Fourniret has confessed to a number of killings
At first sight it is hard to see the connection between a man who murdered at least nine young women in France and Belgium and item (13) on the agenda of this week's meeting of the European Union Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council.

When Frenchman Michel Fourniret confessed to killing nine women between 1987 and 2001 he was already in custody for attempted child abduction in Belgium.

What stunned the authorities was the fact that he had been given a job in a school in Belgium despite the fact that he had been jailed in France for child sex offences.

There are parallels between the Fourniret case and that of Ian Huntley, in the UK, who was employed as a school caretaker despite having been the subject of many sexual assault allegations.

Gaps between countries

Huntley went on to murder two girls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, Cambridgeshire.

Huntley fell through a deficient national net. But in Fourniret's case, he fell through the gaps between countries.

There was no international net, no way of passing information about convictions or disqualifications between countries which now have open borders.

From the Fourniret case sprang a determination to create such a net - and that is where item (13) at this week's JHA comes in to play.

Its title leans towards tedium - "Draft Framework Decision on taking account of convictions in the Member States of the European Union in the course of new criminal proceedings".

But it is another part of the criminal justice net being stretched across a more and more borderless Europe.

Four steps

In most jurisdictions, most second or third offences carry a much heavier punishment than a first offence.

But at present a court in France, for example, does not recognise the punishment handed out by a court in, say, Italy.

If and when the member states agree on the Draft Framework Decision, courts across the EU will recognise each other's actions.

So, as long as the information makes its way smoothly around 25 different criminal justice systems - a rather large qualification if past failings are anything to go by - previous convictions will be taken into account.

There are four steps to this programme - the exchange of information, the (legal) recognition of such information, the recognition of disqualification and getting electronic systems to talk to each other.

The last of these will take a long time, and require many safeguards. But with each step Europe's different judicial systems are reflecting the realities of Europe's open, single, market.

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