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02 Mar 2023

Italy's highest court denies China extradition

BREAKING – Rome, 2 March 2023. Last night, Italy’s highest court rejected a request from China to extradite one of its citizens, overturning a decision by a lower court in late autumn of last year.

The reason for the denial by Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation has not yet been made public but it follows the public prosecutor’s recommendation to rule against the extradition on the basis of the evidence provided by the defense that it would have breached Italy’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights on multiple accounts. An extensive brief on China’s in-country situation was provided by Safeguard Defenders to defense attorney Enrico Di Fiorino.

This decision is the first by a member state of the Council of Europe after the European Court of Human Rights’(ECtHR) unanimous assessment of a “general situation of violence” in China’s judicial and penitentiary systems in the case of Liu v. Poland went into effect 30 January 2023.

The target of the extradition is a former CEO of a well-known Chinese company wanted for alleged economic crimes. They were detained on an Interpol Red Notice while passing through Italy in summer 2022 and released on home arrest only a few weeks earlier by order of the same Court of Cassation following an appeal by Di Fiorino.

Persuade to Return

Their ordeal was further compounded by extensive pressure applied by China on their family members back home in an attempt to “persuade to return” in the years leading up to their arrest in Italy.

Between June and December 2021, Chinese police detained their brother for six months. A father with a young son, none of his relatives was informed, making his detention an enforced disappearance and a practice denounced repeatedly by UN human rights bodies. See our graphic report Locked Up for insight into conditions of enforced disappearances in China before formal arrest.

The man was repeatedly interrogated and subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment – including the confiscation of his glasses, effectively leaving him blind for the six-month illegal detention.  He was never charged or questioned about any specific crime. His harassment appears to have been solely to pressure the target under extradition request to return to China, a practice that is increasingly known as China’s illegal “persuade to return” operations, documented in our report Involuntary Returns

Principle of Non-refoulement

The Italian Supreme Court’s sentence marks an important departure from the hasty decision taken by the Ancona Appeals Court late last year. It also spells hope for the upholding of the international principle of non-refoulement as highlighted in the ECtHRs’ Liu v. Poland precedent-setting case. The principle of non-refoulement is the prohibition against extraditing or deporting a person to a country where they stand to be at risk of torture or other inhumane and degrading treatment.  

It is believed that the Cypriot government has not appealed a decisive decision against the extradition of an alleged economic fugitive taken by a Cypriot court in late December 2022 – the first such case since Cyprus ratified an extradition treaty with the PRC. The strength of the court’s decision and the ECtHR decision coming into effect in early 2023 made any appeal unlikely to succeed, especially since Poland’s appeal against the ECtHR decision was also rejected by the ECtHR.

Responses to the court's decision

After the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation’s decision, Di Fiorino commented: “We cannot but be extremely pleased with the Court's decision. In my opinion, the ruling represents the culmination of a path of increasingly conscious opposition to countries that do not know nor respect the rule of law and fair trial.

“Following Liu v. Poland, what is – at the end of the day - requested to change is China’s legal and judicial systems, in order to avoid the use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment in its detention facilities and penitentiaries. Until this occurs, there is no longer any possibility to legally continue a cooperation with the People's Republic of China, unless by breaching the European Convention.

“The Court of Ancona decision clearly stood outside a now common and uniform view of the position that Western countries have intended to take with respect to extradition requests from China, and more generally from countries that do not respect for human rights.

“The clear signal that has been sent is addressed to a plurality of authorities: (i) judicial, because every pending extradition request from China must be denied in order to be compliant with the European Convention system; (ii) executive power, because Ministries of Justice in all Member States should stop allowing requests from China to be brought forth to judicial processing at all; (iii) legislative power, because countries should think about the suspension of the treaties already signed and ratified.”

Safeguard Defenders’ response to the decision:

“Where European Governments have failed to take political responsibility for upholding the international rule of law and ensuring the full enjoyment of fundamental human rights – including freedom from torture and the right to a fair trial – by maintaining bilateral extradition treaties with the People’s Republic of China and Hong Kong - leading too often long detention spans faced victims of the PRC’s persecution as they await the outcome of the extradition proceedings (and deemed “arbitrary detention” by the EctHR in the Liu v. Poland sentence) , the judiciary has stepped in to make things right.

“With many cases still ongoing, we not only hope this trend will continue but also that Governments still maintaining bilateral extradition treaties will take stock of these clear-cut developments and finally move towards their suspension.

“Without a doubt, PRC authorities will once more lament how this is turning the EU into a ‘safe haven’ for so-called ‘fugitives’, but EU member states can and should only respond in one way: it is up to the PRC authorities to start maintaining the many empty promises made under the international human rights treaties they have signed on to, and pursue a profound reform of its judicial and penitentiary system in line with international standards. Unfortunately, we know that the latest series of announced reforms go in the exact opposite direction.”