3. Full operational continuity during COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 crisis has been a challenge for society and the judiciary across the European Union.
In 2020, Eurojust continued to be fully operational in assisting prosecutors in all Member States, ensuring that cross-border crime is tackled and decisive action is taken against criminals abusing the situation.
From the time of the outbreak of the pandemic, Eurojust opened 3240 new cases, including 164 directly related to the COVID-19 crisis.
In some of these cases, Member States asked Eurojust’s support in specific COVID-19-related offences such as fraud related to the selling of face masks. In other cases, Eurojust has intervened to facilitate the execution of judicial cooperation instruments, such as European Arrest Warrants (EAWs) and European Investigation Orders (EIOs), impacted by the application of the COVID-19-related measures.
Guidance & support
To further support practitioners, in April 2020, the Council gave a mandate to Eurojust and the European Judicial Network (EJN) to prepare a compilation of all information collected on the impact on judicial cooperation in criminal matters of measures taken in the Member States, Iceland and Norway to combat the spread of COVID-19. The report analysed the main practical and legal issues arising from the current COVID-19 crisis as reported by the national authorities. This compilation was updated at least every two weeks and published as a Council document [LIMITE].
The COVID-19 crisis had a considerable impact on the application of all judicial cooperation instruments. The execution of judicial cooperation requests that require cross-border movement or physical presence of persons – such as EAWs and the extradition and transfer of sentenced persons – had been most affected. This was mainly caused by the closure of borders and cancellation of flights.
The restriction of physical movement has led most States to rely on alternative digital solutions, such as email or videoconferencing, for the execution of requests for judicial cooperation. In this way, for example, the hearing of persons can take place via a videoconference or requests and procedural documents be transmitted electronically. The COVID-19 crisis has shown even more clearly that digitalising the way investigators, prosecutors and judges work together is the future of judicial cooperation in criminal matters for a safe and just Europe.
Eurojust also developed Guidelines on Operational Support during the COVID-19 pandemic to facilitate the execution of its core business activities during the physical restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 crisis. The guidelines cover, in particular, the use of secure videoconferencing systems to allow prosecutors to still meet under the auspices of Eurojust and discuss cooperation strategies on common cases during the pandemic.
Eurojust reviewed the COVID-19-related casework to analyse common issues and solutions. The Report on the impact of COVID-19 on Eurojust casework is expected to be released at the beginning of 2021.
Events and activities
Eurojust supported the Commission in analysing business needs concerning the digitalisation of judicial cooperation in criminal matters (Digital Criminal Justice). As the pandemic has confirmed, it is crucial to establish a digital infrastructure that enables the fast and secure exchange of information and evidence between prosecutors across Europe.
In spite of the pandemic, Eurojust successfully launched the Focus Group on Migrant Smuggling to provide a platform for prosecutors to exchange good practice and discuss issues on this topic.
Eurojust ensured full operational continuity in the work of the hosted networks (European Judicial Network, JITs Network, Genocide Network and European Judicial Cybercrime Network) during the COVID-19 crisis.
As the 2020 chair of the Justice and Home Affairs agencies’ network (JHAAN), Eurojust organised virtual meetings and coordinated several joint publications related to the operational continuity during the COVID-19 crisis.
Eurojust organised virtual expert workshops on topics such as right-wing extremism and terrorism, and sham marriages. The aim of these workshops is to provide insights into legal and operational challenges in investigating and prosecuting such offences, and drawing lessons and best practice from concrete case examples.
Cross-border crimes related to the COVID-19 crisis
Eurojust supported 164 cases that presented issues related to the COVID-19 crisis. Many of them concerned particular cross-border crimes exploiting the COVID-19 crisis:
In Germany, judicial and law enforcement authorities uncovered a large-scale fraud with an offer of 10 million face masks for EUR 15 million, for which one German state had shown an interest. Alleged suppliers in Asia were supposed to deliver the masks to a German sales company, via other European distributors, to be finally handed over in the Netherlands. The perpetrators tricked the German sales company into paying an advance of EUR 2.4 million to accounts in other European countries. On the day of the planned delivery in the Netherlands, it became clear that the German sales company had become the victim of fraud. The German Desk at Eurojust provided active support to the investigations, ensuring judicial cooperation with three countries. Two suspects were arrested in the Netherlands and over EUR 2 million in assets have been frozen.
In France, a company in Dijon became the victim of swindling by unknown perpetrators using a Hungarian enterprise, supposedly selling protection masks and hydro-alcoholic hand gel. The French company ordered protection supplies for an amount of EUR 132 500, which were never delivered, while the money had immediately been transferred to Hungary. The Public Prosecutor's Office of Dijon issued a European freezing order to recover the money and requested Eurojust to facilitate its urgent execution. Via rapid and close collaboration between the French and Hungarian National Desks, the total amount was frozen on the Hungarian bank account. Further investigations are ongoing in this case.
In Brno in the Czech Republic, most of the computer system of a hospital was hacked by a criminal organisation, which had encrypted the communications. This forced the temporary shutdown of the entire hospital despite the ongoing COVID-19 emergency as hospital staff were unable to obtain adequate information on patients. Via Eurojust, EIOs and requests for mutual legal assistance were issued to France and Switzerland to follow up investigations.