Eurojust ensures operational continuity in spite of coronavirus restrictions, with further increase in new cases

23 March 2021|PRESS RELEASE

Judicial authorities in EU Member States are increasingly turning to Eurojust, the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation, for assistance in investigations of serious cross-border crimes and terrorism, to bring suspects to trial in national courts. In spite of drastic restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Agency ensured full operational continuity, with 13 % more cases registered last year, to more than 8 800 in total. About one-half of all cases were newly opened, reflecting the growing level of complexity in cross-border criminal investigations. In 2020, judicial cooperation via Eurojust led to the arrest of 2 209 suspects, the freezing of EUR 1.9 billion in criminal assets and the seizure of drugs worth EUR 3 billion.

These are the main conclusions from the Eurojust Annual Report, which has been presented today by its President, Mr Ladislav Hamran, in the LIBE Committee of the European Parliament. On this occasion, he stated: ‘In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had us face the most significant and unpredictable challenges in decades. I am incredibly proud of the flexibility, resilience and determination that Eurojust has shown in the face of this crisis. Our operational support was never interrupted and our impressive results confirm that even under the most difficult circumstances, we are still able to make a real, tangible contribution towards a safer Europe.’

European Commissioner for Justice Mr Didier Reynders said: ‘I congratulate Eurojust for the determination it has shown in its mission and for stepping up its action in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. I am aware that the latest months have put a strain on the functioning of the justice systems in the European Union. Justice will grow stronger after this crisis. Member States are increasing the spending in the digitalisation of the justice systems and are joining forces to prevent cross-border crimes. Eurojust also plays a key role in this transition.’

In total, 164 cases were directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, either regarding difficulties with the execution of European Arrest Warrants and European Investigation Orders due to border closures, or concerning fraud with, for instance, the sale of face masks and protective gels.

Eurojust provided rapid judicial expertise and assistance in these cases, ensuring the freezing of bank accounts and transmission of evidence. In one case, Eurojust supported the Czech authorities with requests for judicial cooperation with France and Switzerland after part of the computer system of a hospital in the city of Brno was hacked at the height of the coronavirus crisis.

By rapidly adapting to a new reality with virtual meetings via secure online communication tools, the Agency has continued to act as a hub for information exchange and provided tailored support, funding and expertise for all relevant partners in the criminal justice chain.

The COVID-19 pandemic clearly emphasised the need for the further digitalisation of justice across the EU, with the European Commission in a Communication last autumn tasking Eurojust to roll out the project Digital Justice. The Agency last year became a full partner of the SIRIUS project with Europol, to better support judicial authorities dealing with internet-based investigations.

Mr Ladislav Hamran, National Member for Slovakia, was re-elected for a four-year mandate as President of the Agency. Mr Boštjan Škrlec, National Member for Slovenia, was elected Vice-President of Eurojust in 2020, functioning side by side with Mr Klaus Meyer-Cabri, National Member for Germany, who was re-elected as Vice-President in 2019.

Major cases in 2020:

Building on expertise, increasing cooperation and network building:

For the first time, the Eurojust Annual Report has been published in a digital-first version. For your questions and answers on Eurojust in 2020, please check out the Q&A section below.

Questions and answers

Criminal activities increasingly have a cross-border dimension. For instance, the rise of cybercrime and the use of online tools by criminal networks lead to more complex transnational cases and investigations. For this reason, judicial authorities in Member States and third countries need more cross-border cooperation, advice and guidance to investigate these crimes and prepare for solid follow-up in national courts. As the steady growth in cases referred to Eurojust in recent years shows, authorities rely increasingly on Eurojust to enable efficient and reliable collaboration.

In recent years, a majority of the cases are not solved within one year, which indicates a growing level of complexity. As the EU’s centre of expertise in judicial cooperation in criminal matters, Eurojust has developed targeted support to prosecutors and investigative judges specialising, for example, in terrorism, migrant smuggling and cybercrime, which also contributes to the rise in cases concerning these types of crime.

Crime also does not stop at EU borders and Eurojust has built a solid international network of Contact Points and partners over the years, forming a gateway to 55 jurisdictions around the world. By working through Eurojust, national judicial authorities benefit from this network when involved in international criminal investigations.

As soon as the vast scale of the pandemic became clear, Eurojust took measures to ensure business continuity while taking all necessary precautions. Within one week, safe and secure communication tools, including secure video conferencing, were rolled out to allow essential coordination meetings to continue and enable prompt follow-up to all incoming requests from national judicial authorities without delays or disturbances.

To ensure the personal safety of national representatives and staff members working at the Agency, remote working arrangements were quickly introduced to enable teleworking, strictly following the guidelines of the Dutch authorities. The presence of staff in the building has been kept to an essential minimum, following strict guidelines.

The Council and the Commission also called on Eurojust to quickly establish an overview of the impact of the pandemic and lockdown measures on the implementation of judicial cooperation tools such as the European Arrest Warrant (EAW).

Criminal networks are operating more and more on a global level. Building international partnerships has become one of Eurojust’s priorities in recent years. The Agency currently has Working Arrangements with 12 third countries, and ten third countries have Liaison Prosecutors at Eurojust who can participate in coordination meetings, action days and joint investigation teams.

Last year, Serbia, Albania and Georgia appointed new Liaison Prosecutors following the conclusion of Cooperation Agreements. Furthermore, Eurojust has set up a worldwide network of Contact Points over the years, for international judicial cooperation. Last year, this network grew to a total of 55 after Uzbekistan, Mexico, Sri Lanka and Kosovo1 appointed new Contact Points.

1 This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

As of October 2020, the EuroMed Justice Programme is hosted by Eurojust, which marked the start of the fourth stage of this programme. Funded by the European Commission, EuroMed Justice aims to strengthen cooperation in judicial criminal matters among the EU’s Southern Partner Countries (SPCs): Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine2 and Tunisia. It focuses on capacity building in cooperation with the SPCs and assists in working towards a long-term regional cooperation mechanism and fostering closer contacts with the EU.

2 This designation shall not be construed as recognition of a State of Palestine and is without prejudice to the individual positions of the Member States on this issue.

For the coming period, two main themes for Eurojust are the modernisation and globalisation of criminal justice:

In December 2020, the European Commission presented a Communication on the Digitalisation of Justice, which includes a key role for Eurojust in the process of creating a system that will equip national prosecution services across the EU and EU Agencies such as Eurojust with a secure digital environment for information exchange and collaboration.

In February 2021, the Council adopted a four-year strategy, on the proposal of the Commission, for the further negotiation of cooperation agreements between Eurojust and another 14 third countries. Such cooperation agreements will enable the exchange of operational information and the posting of Liaison Prosecutors to Eurojust. The Agency is also investing in its global network, which grew in 2020 to 55 Contact Points worldwide for judicial cooperation.

In terms of crime types, Eurojust will, inter alia, continue to focus on terrorism – including the further development of the Judicial Counter-Terrorism Register – cybercrime, trafficking in human beings (THBs) and migrant smuggling as well as several forms of economic crime.

Eurojust will also continue to serve national judicial authorities and EU institutions with regular analysis and insights into the practical implementation of EU judicial cooperation tools, such as the EAW, the European Investigation Order and the new regulation of freezing orders.

The number of cybercrime cases registered at Eurojust has risen tremendously during recent years, with 174 new cases opened at the Agency in 2020 alone. Cybercrime often requires a cross-border approach since perpetrators, victims and infrastructure used are often located in different countries.

Eurojust has developed expertise with specialised operational experts in the coordination of investigations with cyber-related aspects such as encryption and the collection of and access to electronic evidence. The Agency also plays an important role in supporting the European Judicial Cybercrime Network.

While encryption is essential to ensure cybersecurity and the protection of personal data, it is also used by criminals to avoid detection. A recent example is the coordinated takedown of EncroChat, an encrypted phone network widely used by criminal networks to exchange millions of messages planning serious crimes. This abuse of encryption by criminal organisations is likely to continue and requires a common knowledge of best practice and efficient international judicial cooperation.

In 2020, Eurojust became a fully fledged partner in the SIRIUS project, which focuses on supporting the gathering of electronic evidence in internet-based investigations. The Agency has contributed to building the judicial component of SIRIUS since 2018. More than half of all criminal investigations today include a cross-border request to access electronic evidence such as texts, e-mails or messaging apps.

Eurojust in 2020 launched a Focus Group for Prosecutors and Investigative Judges Fighting Migrant Smuggling from EU Member States. This new platform of specialised prosecutors and judges in migrant smuggling gathers all concerned actors in the security and criminal justice chain. Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC) also joined this new initiative. It will serve as an important hub to regularly connect the key judicial actors at national level in the EU Member States responsible for tackling migrant smuggling crimes, to support their joint operational response.

A new casework report on the prevention of sham marriages that looked into the lessons learnt from cases referred to Eurojust in the past four years was also presented. Organised crime groups (OCGs) make big profits through arranging sham marriages and use them as a way of arranging residence rights for persons who have entered the EU illegally. Sham marriages, however, often appear as isolated acts, connected only to relatively minor offences, such as document fraud or administrative violations, associated with low penalties. The report includes recommendations on how to step up the fight against sham marriages by international OCGs, including dealing with the lack of harmonised national legislation and involving all relevant administrations in the judicial process such as civil registries and consulates.

With the about 8 800 criminal investigations Eurojust supported last year, the Agency contributed to delivering justice for nearly 95 000 victims of all forms of serious cross-border crime. The interest of victims is one of the factors Eurojust considers when advising Member States on judicial issues such as in the case of parallel proceedings or conflicting EAWs or requests for extradition.

The impact on victims is a particularly central element of Eurojust’s cases addressing THBs, and attention is paid to their safety during and after operational activities. At the High-Level Conference on the EU Strategy on Victims’ Rights, organised by the European Commission together with the German Presidency in 2020, Eurojust announced its active participation in the new Victims’ Rights Platform created following the adoption of the first EU Strategy on Victims’ Rights.

Combating terrorism is one of the priorities of Eurojust, and particular attention was paid last year to the return of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs). FTFs are being indicted in more and more Member States, with charges not only made for involvement in terrorist activities but also for so-called core crimes. These are war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

By cumulating charges of terrorism with core crimes, the chance to get justice done increases and this was the main theme of the report on cumulative charges, which was presented by the Genocide Network Secretariat, based at Eurojust, last year during the EU Day Against Impunity of core crimes. This happened in an online setting, with the support of Nobel Peace Prize winner Ms Nadia Murad.