Man strip-searched and held for 24 hours over friend's 'joke text' about sabotaging a train

Daily Mail | May 4, 2009
By Peter Allen

An innocent man was strip-searched and held in a cell for 24 hours after receiving a joke text message from a friend about sabotaging a train.

The 29-year-old was arrested after his mobile phone provider passed on details of the message to police - who accused him of not reporting a crime.

The case, which happened in France, provoked widespread outrage about the 'sinister' march of the Big Brother state there.

The man, referred to only by his first name of Stephane, received a message saying 'Do you know how to de-rail a train?' last month in Abbeville, in the Somme region.

The woodworker thought nothing of the text but hours later he was arrested.

Detectives said his mobile provider had passed on details of the message. They claimed Stephane should have called the police as soon as he received the text.

Stephane said: 'I was strip-searched and forced to hand over the name of my colleague who had sent the message.

'Then the court gave an order that I could be held for up to 24 hours. It was a real shock. In two seconds I felt I had become a vulgar criminal.

'I was held in a prison cell which smelled of urine. I felt I was being treated like a dog.' 
He was released without charge after 24 hours. His friend was also held for 24 hours.

French law allows information including texts to be handed over to the authorities if there is a 'concern about terrorism'.

Security services here are not allowed to snoop on British citizens' texts.

But it is thought they sidestep these restrictions by monitoring other countries' communications and then exchanging data with them.

Éric Fouard, the Abbeville public prosecutor, said : ‘The phone operator has the right to consult these messages and must alert the authorities if he thinks a crime or an offence is likely to be committed.

‘The penal sytem is the same for everybody, whether the risk is great or small.’

But a spokesman for the French civil liberties group CNIL said: ‘The fact that someone can be arrested on the strength of receiving a text message has very sinister implications.’

In France the law allows information including text messages to be handed over to the authorities if there is a ‘concern about terrorism’.

France is on high alert against attacks on its rail system at the moment, following a number of acts of vandalism on lines and rolling stock.

Stéphane, who was released without charge following his arrest on April 16th, said : ‘It was all profoundly shocking. I really hope that a train isn’t de-railed in coming weeks.’

Britain's information watchdog, the Information Commissioner's Office, has frequently called for tighter regulation on information being handed over to the authorities by phone companies.

Research shows that British phone companies regularly hand over data about their customers to some 650 public bodies, including the police.

Last month Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, scrapped plans to build a giant database to monitor the UK’s e-mails, phone calls and internet activity.

Instead the records of every electronic communication will be held by private companies at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £2 billion over ten years.

About 57 billion text messages were sent in Britain last year.