VILNIUS – European Chief Prosecutor Laura Kovesi has said that she as a lawyer supports the initiative to set up a special tribunal to investigate Russia's crimes of aggression in Ukraine and to hold the Kremlin's top officials accountable.
"Well, my personal opinion, because for this question I can give you just a personal opinion, not institutionally. Of course, I support this idea and I think if the prosecutor investigates war crimes, it's also important that there exists continuity and that, in the end, the truth is found out," the head of the EU's anti-corruption body, who visited Vilnius last week, said in an interview with BNS.
"So at a personal level, as a lawyer, I support this idea," she said.
Last October, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia called on the EU to set up a special tribunal jointly with international partners. The Baltic countries say that such a tribunal would allow closing legal loopholes and bringing Russia's leaders to justice.
Lithuanian officials say that discussions with partners are no longer about the need for such a tribunal, but about what form it could take.
PROSECUTING SANCTIONS VIOLATIONS
As the EU is considering a tenth package of restrictions on Russia, the European Public Prosecutor's Office is seeking an extension of its mandate to include violations of the bloc's sanctions.
Launched a year and a half ago, the body currently investigates and prosecutes crimes against the EU's financial interests, including several types of fraud, VAT fraud, money laundering, corruption, etc.
In Vilnius, the European chief prosecutor discussed the issue with the Lithuanian president, the prime minister and the justice minister.
"This was the reason that we also had a meeting at the higher level, because this decision should be taken by member states and we needed to discuss this issue at the high level to be sure that Lithuania will support this proposal," Kovesi told BNS.
"Well, I think they should announce this, but yes, I can say that those discussions were very constructive. They strongly support the activity of the EPPO and strongly support the idea to have this competence," she said.
According to the Romanian lawyer, the office's competence could be extended in a few months if there is political will.
MORE REGULATORY GAPS
Kovesi said that the she sees more regulatory gaps that need to be closed.
For example, the EU's directive on the fight against fraud affecting the bloc's financial interests has not been transposed in the same way in all countries.
"For example, if you commit smuggling in the Netherlands, you cannot be investigated by the EPPO, but if you commit smuggling in Lithuania or in Romania or in Germany, you can be investigated by the EPPO. So at this moment, we have that forum shopping that the criminals can choose who can investigate them or not. And this has to be clarified," she told BNS.
The European chief prosecutor also said that prosecutors' pay system is currently too complex and needs to be changed as well.
"For example, at the moment, the European-delegated prosecutors work in Lithuania. The EPPO is paying their salaries, but the Lithuanian authorities have to pay for social security and for other things, so we have a mixed system and this has to be clarified," she said.
The EPPO network currently involves 22 member states as Denmark, Ireland, Hungary, Poland and Sweden are not part of it.
However, Kovesi expects that these countries will join in the future, but underlines that this is a political decision.
"With Hungary, we have signed a working arrangement and we started to work with them. We have, for example, next week a visit from the Swedish prosecutors (for them) to see how we work and how we perform our duties," the lawyer said.
"So let's hope that they will join soon," she added.
'NO CLEAN COUNTRIES'
In its first year of operation, the EPPO received over 4,000 reports and opened more than 1,200 investigations, according to Kovesi.
The European chief prosecutor said that nearly 30 cases were brought before courts during the period and some of them have already been closed, noting that her office deals with cases that span several countries and are particularly complex, which makes investigations time-consuming.
"In the same period of time, we seized a quarter of a billion euros. This means five times more than our budget. So, in simple words, you put one euro in the EPPO and you take back 5 euros, because everything we seize in our investigations is our money that goes in the national budgets," she said.
Asked how Lithuania looks in this context, Kovesi said that a more detailed picture will be available when the annual activity report is published in a few weeks' time.
The European chief prosecutor noted, however, that it is wrong to think that the EU's eastern members are more corrupt than the rest of the bloc.
"It's not true; there are no clean countries," she said.
At the start of the EPPO activity, there were "more than 10 member states that didn't report any VAT fraud".
"But this doesn't mean that those member states are clean, because among them there were member states with EU external borders. So it's not credible that nothing is happening at the border – no custom fraud, no VAT fraud," she said.
Kovesi praised Lithuania for its willingness to cooperate and help solve crimes, rather than trying to hide problems.
There are four European delegated prosecutors in Lithuania: Jolita Kancauskiene, Vytautas Kukaitis, Gedgaudas Norkunas and Jurgita Steponaviciute-Otto.
Tomas Krusna is Lithuania’s European prosecutor based in Luxembourg.