Bungled 2004 criminal law decree could see hundreds of French prisoners released

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Thousands of cases to be reviewed after a French appeals court annulls a 2004 government decree that should have been voted by parliament.

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Dozens – and possibly hundreds – of prisoners could be released from French jails following a June court ruling, which determined that France’s law on the statute of limitations was incorrectly applied between 2004 and 2012, reports FRANCE 24.

France’s Socialist government was facing a huge judicial headache after a report revealed on Wednesday that hundreds of prisoners in French jails may have to be released on a technicality.

According to satirical and investigative weekly the Canard Enchainé, the Court of Cassation – France’s last court of appeal in civil and criminal matters – in June 2013 ruled a 2004 government decree on the statute of limitations null and void.

The statute of limitations, called “prescription” in France, sets out the time limit after a crime has been committed during which an offender can still be punished.

In 2004, France’s justice ministry decreed that the ministry, as well as sentencing judges, could decide whether a suspected criminal could still be imprisoned – even if the normal time limit had expired.

The decree also outlined conditions, such as sending out European arrest warrants, which could change or interrupt that period.

But the Court of Cassation ruled that only a law voted by both houses of parliament could change the conditions of the statute of limitations, therefore ruling the 2004 decree null and void.

According to the Canard Enchainé, the justice ministry realised the mistake in June 2012 and "quietly and without explanation" amended the law.

It remains unclear if the ministry overlooked or deliberately ignored the fate of prisoners who might otherwise have been released.

Read more of this report from FRANCE 24.

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