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Mafia trial 'abuses' solitary confinement

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Mafia trial 'abuses' solitary confinement
The scene of the double homicide at the heart of the Södertälje mafia trial. File photo: TT
08:02 CET+01:00
Södertälje mafia suspects appeared in court this week after years of being held in isolation, highlighting Sweden's penchant for long and incommunicado pre-trial detention periods that has some legal experts crying foul.

A 22-year-old suspect of murder has been kept in isolation for more than two years, a remand period with strict restrictions that his lawyers said was probably unique in Swedish legal history.

"It is unusal because the risk of collusion (that suspects tamper with an investigation) is usually considered over once the main negotiations are held," defence lawyer Elsa Svalsten, who represents Abraham Aho, 22, told The Local.

The original district court trial had to be held twice in the town of Södertälje, less than an hour south of Stockholm, after one of the lay judges was found to potentially have a conflict of interest.

"This can hardly be considered the responsibility of our client," Svalsten said of the year-long delay.

Restrictions have been in place for the 22-year-old since he was detained. 

"You can't even call your mum without someone listening," Abraham Aho's chief defence lawyer Jan Karlsson said.

"You have to ask what you are ready to subject a person to when he or she could later be found innocent, which is the guiding principle in Sweden - innocent until proven guilty," Svalsten added. 

Aho's case, part of the expansive Södertälje mafia trial (Södertäljemålet), entered the appeal phase on Monday. The same case has also seen suspected sergeant-at-arms Bernard Khouri, 32, isolated since he was arrested in February 2011. Both men are now housed in the Kumla prison's high-security wing Fenix.

"One sometimes gets the impression they remand suspects in custody in order to place restrictions on them," Khouri's defence attorney Fredrik Ungerfält told The Local. 

While Swedish law permits restrictions when prosecutors fear a suspect will tamper with an investigation - for example by intimidating witnesses - Sweden has been criticized internationally for its liberal use of such restrictions. 

Ungerfält estimated that some 70 percent of criminal cases in Gothenburg, where he is based, saw suspects locked up with some kind of restrictions -- which in its harshest guise amounts to de facto solitary confinement. He said it was problematic, even more so when applied seemingly arbitrarily.

"It's a burden both mentally and physically," he said. "It's upsetting that quite mundane crimes like theft entail detention with restrictions."

The problem is so widespread that the Council of Europe has criticized Sweden for its long detention periods and its application of restrictions. The UN and Amnesty have added their names to the list of critics.

"We have a saying in Gothenburg that it's easier to be remanded in custody with restrictions than to find good prawns," Ungerfält pointed out. "Why can the rest of Europe make do without restrictions?" 

Other lawyers have said arbitrary remand practices, when suspects are locked up waiting for trial, could endanger the rule of law. Younger suspects might confess to crimes they had not committed simply to escape solitary, the argument has been.

"It is a serious risk that you will admit to almost anything just to get into a social environment and avoid having only yourself as company," Umeå-based lawer Petter Hetta told Sveriges Radio (SR) earlier this year. His 19-year-old client had been isolated for four months in connection to a suspected aggravated narcotics offence. 

In June, Sweden's State Prosecutor Anders Perklev announced that he had assembled a working group with lawyers, prosecutors and representatives from the Swedish Prison and Probation Service (Kriminalvården) to have a look at whether Sweden could shorten the detention times. 

"Not a day too early," Aftonbladet crime reporter Oisin Cantwell, an ardent critic of the system, commented at the time. "There was a similar review a few years ago that petered out into some wishy-washy recommendation that prosecutors give the suspect a more detailed explanation of why they were remanded in custody with restrictions."  

Additional reporting by Cajsa Collin

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