Criminal justice systems struggle to deal with COVID-19
London: The COVID-19 pandemic is causing an "unprecedented crisis" for some European criminal justice systems as officials try to deal with a host of unforeseen problems.
Courts, lawyers and prison officials from Belfast to Warsaw are trying to adapt systems that protect society but are cracking under the strain of the new coronavirus.
Many countries have taken similar approaches to deal with the crisis.
Austria, Britain, Germany and Poland are among those that have postponed trials, with London halting new jury cases because of social distancing restrictions.
"The COVID-19 outbreak presents an unprecedented crisis for the criminal justice system in the UK," said a National Police Chiefs’ Council document published on April 2 that outlined new guidance for officers.
"It follows that there must be careful consideration of what new offences are fed into the system," it added.
Northern Ireland has agreed the temporary release of 200 prisoners from jail because of the crisis.
In Poland -- where the right-wing Law and Justice Party has introduced a slew of controversial judicial reforms since 2015 -- most prisoners serving terms of less than three years have been released.
Portugal has granted pardons on humanitarian grounds.
In Austria, prisoners denied visits are allowed longer phone and video calls.
"The ban on visitors led to some tensions among the prisoners. So now we allow them to talk more on the phone," Peter Bevc, a prison director in Klagenfurt, Austria, said last week.
‘Anxious times’
Scotland, which has its own legal system, announced -- and then dropped following an outcry -- plans to suspend jury trials for up to 18 months.
The Law Society of Scotland described the call for a suspension of juries one of "the most dramatic changes to the legal system ever considered".
And Guido Wolf, a justice minister in Germany’s Baden-Wuerttemberg state, said hearings had been postponed.
"Our business will be severely restricted, but it will not be discontinued."
Although human rights groups and others have noted the logic of such moves to prevent further spreading of the virus, they also warn authorities against disproportionate actions.
Penal Reform International said officials "must ensure human rights are respected" for those in prison.
"In such anxious times it is even more pertinent that people are not cut off from the outside world, they do not end up in solitary confinement, and most of all they have access to information and adequate healthcare provision," it said.
Amnesty International highlighted concerns over Turkey’s plan to release some prisoners, but not some human rights activists. - AFP