How the EU investigates Russia’s war crimes – interview with the head of Eurojust
Head of Eurojust, Ladislav Khamran (Photo:ALEXANDROS MICHAILIDIS/Alamy via Reuters)
Law enforcement officers of 21 countries and the Joint Investigative Group are currently working to ensure that every Russian war criminal gets what he deserves. The head of Eurojust, Ladislav Khamran, spoke to NV about the victims and witnesses of these atrocities, as well as the amount of evidence which has been already collected.
With the beginning of Russia's full-scale against Ukraine, the European Union's judicial cooperation agency, Eurojust, became one of the bodies that facilitates the investigation of Russian war crimes at the international level. In particular, the agency launched the Core International Crimes Evidence Database (CICED). And also recently, together with the Office of the General Prosecutor of Ukraine, it announced the start of work in The Hague Center to support efforts to collect evidence of the crime of aggression in Ukraine.
NV: From the very beginning, Eurojust has supported international efforts to collect evidence on the main crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. What challenges do international prosecutors face in gathering evidence?
Khamran: There are lots of obstacles. First of all, obviously, the key obstacle is access to the territory and the beginning of the collection of evidence. This is primarily a national problem for Ukrainian prosecutors, but also for members of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) [representatives of Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia and Romania, whose partner is the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and Eurojust] who were sent to Ukraine to help the country begin gathering evidence related to the ongoing war. For example, SSG members were advised not to come to Ukraine yet, as it is simply dangerous for them.
On international level, we have other challenges too. For example, 21 countries are conducting their own investigations [at national levels] and are gathering evidence now. And this, of course, means that we need to understand who is investigating what, on what legal basis, and what has been done for now, how much evidence has been collected.
In addition, we work with the international community of non-governmental organizations and civil society. The big challenge is to make sure that we don't duplicate our efforts, that NGOs don't interview witnesses or victims who are then interviewed again by law enforcement. That's why we want to make sure organizations bring all victims and witnesses directly to law enforcement.
Another problem is that, as we feel, victims and witnesses who are abroad are reluctant to testify because their relatives are still in Ukraine and they are afraid that this may have consequences for them personally. It is also related to trust in institutions. We understand that Ukrainians do not trust the institutions or do not trust them enough, and they would like to wait for a more peaceful time. Perhaps at a later stage they will share their testimonies with us.
Another problem is digital evidence overload. Today we have so much evidence that we really have to make sure we have enough analytical capacity to analyze all the evidence collected and start preparing different files and classifying them according to different types of crimes.
This is just a brief overview of the challenges we face.
NV: Do you have data on how much evidence has been collected by countries conducting investigations at the national level?
Khamran: We currently have a rough idea of how much evidence was collected by the Joint Investigation Team. However, we do not yet have a clear idea of how much evidence has been collected in the 21 jurisdictions. That is why Eurojust is developing a major international database of crime evidence and inviting all countries, it means 21 countries [which are conducting their own investigations] and others, to send us their evidence in one place. And if this database is fully functional, we will have a complete picture of what has been collected and how much. And then we can filter them by type of crime, by region, and so on. And only then we can start developing prosecution strategies.
NV: What evidence has been collected by the Joint Investigation Team?
Khamran: At this stage, at least we or the joint investigative team and its members are focused on gathering evidence – in particular, to properly interview all the victims and witnesses who contact us according to the highest legal standards. And also that various digital evidences such as videos, photos, etc. are analyzed and securely stored. This is the first stage. At the next stage, we will begin to analyze all the collected information and determine the prosecution strategy.
NV: How long can it take to investigate major cases and bring them to court? Are we talking about a period of years?
Khamran: To be honest, now we are talking about thousands of pieces of evidence. From these thousands of pieces of evidence, we want to select the strongest cases that can be successful in court. So we certainly won't be waiting for years. Our strategy is to start building strong cases and take them to national courts. So I expect it to be done in months rather than years.
NV: What might these strong cases be? What types of crimes are we talking about?
Khamran: I cannot replace the members of the Joint Investigative Group who are leaders in this process. But I would really focus on the most serious and gross violations of international humanitarian law, and we should really consider the cases involving Mariupol, Bucha, and other cases where there were mass burials and gross violations of human rights and human dignity.
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