The prime suspect in the Madeleine McCann case was extradited to Germany without proper permission, the European Court of Justice has said, raising the prospect that he could be released from prison within months.
Christian Brückner was named as the prime suspect in the disappearance of three-year-old Madeleine, which the German authorities are treating as a murder investigation, in June.
The 43-year-old, who is currently in prison for a drugs offence, faced a further nine years in prison after he was convicted in December of raping a 72-year-old American woman in Praia de Luiz in 2005 - two years before Madeleine went missing in the same Portuguese village.
But his legal team last month argued that the conviction should be quashed because he was extradited from Italy on a drugs charges - not for rape.
According to EU law, people extradited by a member state through an arrest warrant may not be prosecuted for a previous crime “other than that which is the basis of the surrender”.
Today an advocate general at the European Court advised that German authorities should have got permission from Italy to extradite him lawfully for the rape charge.
The decision, known as an “Opinion” in the Court, is not legally binding and is the penultimate step to a final judgment, which will be delivered by three more judges later this month.
The ruling today suggests that Bruckner’s rape conviction could be ruled unlawful, meaning he could be released in January 2021 when his drugs sentence expires.
At the hearing last month, lawyers on behalf of the German state argued that Bruckner’s legal argument was “devoid of sense”.
“The suspect made the most of open European borders and now he wants us to read the law in such a way it gets turned on its head to give him an advantage in court,” Felix Halabi told the court.
The court heard how Brückner left the country to travel to Italy via the Netherlands because he “wanted to go on holiday,” his lawyer, Friedrich Fülscher, said.
When he arrived in Italy, he was subject to a European arrest warrant for drugs offences from 2011 but, upon returning to Germany, he was put on trial for the rape. Mr Fulscher argued that this is “unconstitutional”.