The EU’s justice ministers yesterday agreed to sign an extradition and mutual assistance pact with the United States, following a year of intensive debate among the 15 members. Greek officials stressed that this would not override bilateral agreements between individual countries and the United States. In Greece’s case, this means that Athens and Washington would not extradite their own citizens. In addition, following yesterday’s agreement, Greece also gained the right, along with other EU countries, to refuse to extradite people to countries where they could face the death penalty. Greece did not have this right under a previous bilateral agreement. The deal was unanimously agreed upon at a meeting in Luxembourg chaired by Greek Justice Minister Philippos Petsalnikos. The Belgian, Spanish and Danish presidencies which preceded Greece’s all moved the issue forward. The accord will be signed by President George W. Bush and Greek PM Costas Simitis in Washington at the US-EU summit on June 25. Cooperation on police and judicial issues intensified greatly after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. «The texts safeguard all the key principles, safeguards and traditions that we have in Europe,» Petsalnikos said. The agreement also gives individual countries the right to refuse extradition if, for some reason not foreseen in the accord, this clashes with the demands of its Constitution. Greece’s Justice Ministry made clear that the EU-US pact had no relation to the suspects in the November 17 terrorism trial, saying that they are Greek citizens and, on the basis of the bilateral agreement, could not be extradited. Several crimes, including murders, committed by November 17 members are covered by the 20-year statute of limitations. Petsalnikos and government spokesman Christos Protopappas took pains to deny a report in the Athens daily Eleftherotypia yesterday that the deal could undermine the sovereignty of EU members. «It foresees the extradition to the United States of EU citizens, of suspects, of those who have been convicted or found innocent in an EU member state for any kind of crime,» the paper wrote in a front-page story. «The agreement has retroactive power. Extradition is not hindered by the statute of limitations in the country in which the crime was committed, nor by the fact that the death penalty applies in the United States.» Eleftherotypia reported that Costas Alavanos, a member of the European Parliament for the left-wing Synaspismos Coalition, called on the government to inform the Greek Parliament of the deal, suggesting that it could be used to extradite November 17 suspects to the United States. Petsalnikos replied in a lengthy statement. «A report in an afternoon daily today… is completely inaccurate on all its critical points,» he said. «The agreement has no relation to the trial of the November 17 suspects and does not affect it… The agreement does not affect or amend directly or indirectly the legal regime of European countries that do not allow extradition of their own citizens.» The Justice Ministry also denied a report suggesting that people could be extradited in order to face trial after already having been tried. Under the deal, the EU will now be able to handle extradition requests through a single simplified procedure. Also, joint investigative teams – between EU and US police and judicial authorities will be able to be formed.