The Commission refers the convictions of three Syrian men arrested as they fled the Assad regime

The Criminal Cases Review Commission has referred for appeal the cases of three men who were convicted of arriving in the UK without appropriate travel documents as they fled from the Assad regime in Syria.

The Commission’s referrals involve three Syrian nationals who arrived in the UK separately and whose cases are not directly linked.

Mr N, a 19 year old, arrived at Heathrow Airport in July 2013. He approached an immigration officer to state that he did not have a passport and to claim asylum. He said he was running from the Assad regime which would kill him and his family if he did not join the army.  He had travelled by car from Syria to Lebanon and then flown to Egypt and on to the UK.

Mr N was charged with failing to produce a satisfactory immigration document contrary to section 2(1) of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004. He was advised by solicitors that he did not have a defence against the charge and pleaded guilty at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court. He was sentenced to four months’ detention in a Young Offender Institution.

Mr N claimed asylum on arrival in the UK and was granted refugee status with five years’ leave to remain.

Mr O arrived at Heathrow Airport in August 2013. He did not have a valid passport when he approached Immigration Control to claim asylum.

Mr O said he had left Syria a month earlier because of the war and because of verbal threats he had received from the Assad regime.  He had been smuggled by car from Syria to Turkey where he remained for a month before flying to the UK.

Mr O was charged with failing to produce a satisfactory immigration document. He was advised by lawyers that he had no defence and pleaded guilty at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court. He was sentence to eight weeks’ imprisonment.

Mr O sought asylum on arrival in the UK and in December 2013 was granted asylum with five years’ leave to remain

Mr P arrived at Heathrow airport in November 2013. He was unable to present a valid passport when he approached Immigration Control and claimed asylum.

Mr P said he fled Syria in October 2013 in fear of the Assad regime which he believed suspected him of belonging to the Free Syrian Army. He had travelled by car to Lebanon and from there had flown to Turkey and on to the UK

He was arrested and interviewed by police and charged with failing to produce a satisfactory immigration document.

He was advised by lawyers that he had no defence to the charge. He pleaded guilty at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court and was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment.

In June 2014, Mr P was granted asylum with five years’ leave to remain.

In all three cases, the men had no normal right of appeal against conviction because they had pleaded guilty in a magistrates’ court.

In October 2014, the three men applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission for reviews of their convictions.

The Commission has looked in detail at these cases and found that, in all three, those convicted had been wrongly advised that they did not have a defence. Consequently, all three pleaded guilty to the charge of failing to produce a satisfactory immigration document contrary to section 2(1) of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004.

In fact, section 2(4)(c) of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) etc. Act 2004 specifically provides a “reasonable excuse” defence for people fleeing persecution who cannot provide proper travel documents because of their circumstances.

The Commission has therefore decided to refer all three convictions to the Crown Court on the basis that they were wrongly advised to plead guilty and were thereby denied the “reasonable excuse” defence which, in each of their cases, would have been likely to succeed.

The Commission considers that there is a real possibility that the Crown Court will now conclude that, in all the circumstances, it should allow all three men to vacate their guilty pleas on the basis that each was deprived of a defence that was likely to succeed.

The Commission has now referred for appeal 34 similar convictions involving asylum seekers and refugees. Several other cases raising similar issues are currently being investigated by the Commission.

The Commission has sought to work with various organisations, including the Crown Prosecution Service, to identify similar cases and to try to prevent further wrongful convictions of this kind.

Two articles written by the Commission discussing other cases and explaining the issues and the law in this area can be seen on the Law Society Gazette website at:

www.lawgazette.co.uk/in-practice/practice-points/ccrc-concern-over-advice-given-refugees

and at

www.lawgazette.co.uk/law/ccrc-concern-over-advice-given-to-refugees/66102.fullarticle

One of the men was unrepresented in his application to the Commission, the other two were assisted in their applications by Bhatt Murphy Solicitors of London.

This press release was issued by Justin Hawkins, Head of Communication, Criminal Cases Review Commission, on 0121 232 0906 or e-mail press@ccrc.gov.uk

Notes for editors

  1. The Commission is an independent body set up under the Criminal Appeal Act 1995. It is responsible for reviewing suspected and alleged miscarriages of criminal justice in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is based in Birmingham and is funded by the Ministry of Justice.
  1. There are currently 12 Commissioners who bring to the Commission considerable experience from a wide variety of backgrounds. Commissioners are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister in accordance with the Office for the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ Code of Practice.
  1. The Commission usually receives around 1,500 applications for reviews (convictions and/or sentences) each year.  Typically, around 3.5%, or one in 29, of all applications are referred to the appeal courts.
  1. The Commission considers whether, as a result of new evidence or argument, there is a real possibility that the conviction would not be upheld were a reference to be made.  New evidence or argument is argument or evidence which has not been raised during the trial or on appeal.  Applicants should usually have appealed first. A case can be referred in the absence of new evidence or argument or an earlier appeal only if there are “exceptional circumstances”.
  1. If a case is referred, it is then for the appeal court to decide whether the conviction is unsafe or the sentence unfair.