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Fight against organized crime and #corruption: New rules?

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051112-corruptioneurope-mThe Commission should review its legislation against corruption and organized crime to better equip member states in their fight against criminal organizations operating in the EU, say MEPs in a non-legislative resolution passed on Tuesday (25 October). MEPs call for initiatives such as EU-wide rules to seize assets from criminal organizations to re-use for social purposes and protection of whistle-blowers.

In the resolution, MEPs demand the adoption of a European Action Plan to eradicate organised crime, fraud and corruption as outlined in its resolution of 2013. They stress that this must be a political priority for the EU and that police and judicial cooperation between Member States is therefore crucial.

“Europe needs to understand the complex issue of organized crime and the danger arising from the infiltration of criminal associations into the social, economic, and political fabric of the member states,” said rapporteur Laura Ferrara (IT, EFDD).“The criminal codes of member states need to be fit for the challenge. This is why I call for urgent and incisive regulatory action at European level to provide law enforcement authorities with the necessary tools to properly fight organized crime groups across Europe.”

Tackling corruption

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The EU Commission is also asked to draw up “blacklists of any undertakings which have proven links with organized crime or engaged in corrupt practices” and to “bar them from entering into an economic relationship with a public authority and benefitting from EU funds”.

Further, a specialist Europol unit should be created to combat organized criminal groups “which operate in several sectors at the same time” the resolution reads. MEPs also ask for common rules for protecting whistle-blowers before the end of 2017.

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Adopted text will soon be available here (25.10.2016)
Video recording of the debate (24.10.2016)
Audiovisual material for media
EP Research Service: Organised crime and corruption - The cost of Non-Europe (March 2016)

EP resolution on organised crime, corruption and money laundering: recommendations on action and initiatives to be taken (23.10.2013)

Cracking down on organised crime, corruption and money laundering (Press release, 23.10.2013)

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Corruption

Corruption perception in the EU increases during the pandemic

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A recent report issued by Transparency International EU shows a rising number of those who believe corruption in EU member countries is present in a significant part of the public sector, considerably more than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

 “Corruption is a major problem for fragile countries in terms of the rule of law. It starts with excessive bureaucracy, the main cause of corruption”, Cristian Paun, economics university professor told EU Reporter.

Two-thirds of the 40.000 EU citizens surveyed said that corruption is a major problem within their public institutions and more than half think their governments are controlled by private interests raising the issue of business lobby in the EU.

“The exacerbation of corruption is related to the rise of bureaucratic behavior throughout the continent. The idea that you can always solve the imperfection of the market through intervention has given way to unwanted consequences. The larger the state, the more public institutions can be subjected to corruption”, professor Paun explained to EU Reporter.

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A particular focus was given in the report to the healthcare system in several EU members states.

The survey found that 29% of the bloc's residents have used personal connections such as well-connected friends or family to receive medical attention. The findings point out to the complicated situation medical systems are in, where citizens urgently require medical assistance and need to deal with the damaging impact corruption has.

Some six percent of EU citizens paid an outright bribe to receive health care, with the numbers far worse in some EU member states. Bribery rates in health care were highest in Romania (22%) and Bulgaria (19%), while relying on personal connections occured most often in the Czech Republic (54%) and Portugal (46%).

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"During a health crisis, using personal connections to access public services can be as damaging as paying bribes. Lives can be lost when connected people get a Covid-19 vaccine or medical treatment before those with more urgent needs", said Delia Ferreira Rubio, the chair of Transparency International.

As shown by the report, personal connections matter most in Portugal, Hungary and the Czech Republic - where half of responds relied on them to get accesses and care.

“Corruption is often a mark of defensive attitude from interest groups, especially in countries with rule of law issues”, explained Paun to EU Reporter.

The report highlights the fact that the pandemic also brought up the issue of transparency amongst EU citizens. Thus "in France, Poland and Spain, 60 percent of respondents or more said their governments acted in a non-transparent manner", Transparency International points out.

The pandemic and restrictions required have in the mindset of those surveyed played an essential role in limiting transparency throughout the EU. This adds to the general feeling across the EU and uttered by a third of the citizens from the 27-country bloc that corruption has got worse over the previous 12 months.

The increase in corruption, coupled with the needs to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic might alter democratic institutions Europe-wide and hurt the very fundamentals of democracies across the continent.

“The people regard this increase in corruption as due to COVID restrictions. Several corruption scandals in various EU countries have shaken the political scene and led to real crises resulting in the fall of various ruling parties. There are enough public details that the leaders in various EU countries used the restrictions imposed by health reasons to hide details about contracts, to use the business opportunities imposed by the pandemic in a cynical way”, Armand Gosu, University of Bucharest professor and Eastern Europe expert told EU Reporter.

The survey singled out Hungary and Poland as countries using the pandemic as "an excuse to undermine democracy" by imposing measures that weaken democratic institutions.

Armand Gosu went on to explain that during this period we saw what the overall feeling of  corruption in the medical system materialized in the form of distrust in the medical staff and authorities. This is obvious if we look at the percentages of vaccinated people in countries where the population has very little confidence in the authorities.

While less than 20 % of people living in Denmark and Finland thought corruption in government was a big problem in their country, more than 85% of those in Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Italy, Portugal and Spain believed it was.

The authors of the report highlight the fact that this is particularly worrying given that member states are preparing to allocate hundreds of billions of euros for post-pandemic recovery.

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Brexit

The United Kingdom of #Fraud and #Bribery?

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Will the U.K. still have access to key European intelligence systems and judicial tools, including the European Arrest Warrants (EAW), following Brexit? U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May insists that the issue is still under negotiation, in sharp contrast to EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier’s unequivocal statement that the UK will cease to be a member of initiatives like Europol as soon as it leaves the European Union, and would have to go through a lengthy negotiation process to rejoin them as a non-Schengen, non-EU country.

The precedent for a non-EU country participating in the EAW scheme is not much more promising; Norway and Iceland’s extradition treaties with the EU, which largely mirror the EAW, took years to negotiate and have yet to come fully into effect. The British government’s decision to make remaining a part of the EAW a “priority”, no matter how unlikely this is from Brussels’ standpoint, suggests that U.K. officials are aware that without the EAW and other judicial cooperation tools, they risk becoming safehaven for criminals.

The EAW, introduced in January 2004, has greatly streamlined and depoliticized the extradition process in Europe, as participating countries are no longer able to exempt their own citizens from extradition and executive decision-making is removed from the surrender procedure. The rule of dual criminality, under which acts only constitute a basis for extradition if they are considered a crime in both the requesting and the requested jurisdiction,  was relaxed. Now, for 32 categories of crimes, ranging from the most serious (terrorism, murder, rape) to the less obvious (fraud, antiquities smuggling, environmental crime) there is no need to prove dual criminality.

If in the olden days, processing and extraditing a suspect an year, under the accelerated procedure it’s  resolved in 48 days on average. Thanks to that, the EAW is highly effective against emerging types of crime, such as a recent scheme in which Eastern European gangs use low-cost airlines to travel abroad and commit crimes before rapidly returning to their country.

While some hard-line Brexiteers welcome the U.K.’s upcoming exclusion from the EAW, cherry-picking cases to claim that “many innocent Britons have been subject to devastating abuse at the hands of incompetent or even corrupt European authorities”, this hyperbole ignores the significant successes for which the EAW scheme is responsible. The Association of Chief Police Officers referred to the EAW as a ‘vital’ tool against organized crime; the Conservative Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, recognised that the EAW was an “effective tool” that was “absolutely essential to delivering effective judgment to the murderers, rapists, and paedophiles that we have managed to seek judgment on”.

There are numerous high-profile examples of the criminals Rudd is referring to having been brought to the UK to face justice via the EAW, from terrorist Husain Osman to paedophile Stephen Carruthers, who had been one of Britain’s ten most wanted criminals when he was arrested in France in January 2017, to priest Laurence Soper, who was brought back from Kosovo to the U.K. to face charges for sexually abusing boys and subjecting them to sadistic beatings. Whitehall has also benefited from the swift extradition of numerous lower-profile criminals, many of whom would not have been brought before justice without the EAW.

While there is a general consensus that the EAW could be improved, particularly by instituting a proportionality test with common guidelines for all EU countries, exiting the scheme entirely throws the baby out with the bathwater and would return the U.K. to a system that, as Theresa May herself noted, would permit 22 EU countries, including France and Germany, to refuse to extradite their nationals to the U.K.  Numerous U.K. officials have raised concerns about a serious security risk if British police are cut off from European resources. A recent report from academics at King’s College London emphasized the high stakes involved and warned against a “serious disruption to security cooperation”, while senior police officers advised that “years of onerous work” will be needed to preserve the current levels of international cooperation.

The difficulties have already begun. As many as 20 extradition requests sought by British police are currently held up in Ireland due to concerns about what extradition framework will exist between the two countries post-Brexit. There are increasing fears that the UK will become “the refuge of preference for every criminal in Europe”.

These fears are easily justified: European criminals on the run from fraud and corruption charges already flee to the UK. Romanian oligarch Alexander Adamescu represents the perfect example of the kind of criminal which will flood the post-Brexit U.K.. Adamescu fled to the U.K. to escape bribery and fraud allegations similar to those which imprisoned his late father. A poisonous combination of an elaborate and noisy media strategy put into place by his British lawyers and hard-line Tories seizing on Adamescu’s case to promote their anti-EU, anti-EAW agenda have kept him in the U.K. despite the outstanding European Arrest Warrant in his name. While evading justice in the UK and masquerading as a playwright, Adamescu is now free to continue his stalling tactics. He is suing the Romanian state, arguing that the charges against him and his father are politically motivated, and is even claiming Jewish heritage - since one of the few ways to override an EAW is in cases of racial or religious discrimination.

Adamescu is not alone in finding the U.K. an attractive place to hide from justice. 28 percent of people arrested in London are foreign nationals, half of which are from the EU. And this is with the European Arrest Warrant in place - without it, Theresa May’s prediction that the UK will become a “honeypot” for criminals evading European justice will undoubtedly prove true.

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Corruption

#Kokorev: The case of 'Kangaroo Courts' on Canary Islands

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The image of impartiality of Spanish courts has been shaken due to the scandal surrounding the High Court of Las Palmas (Canary Islands, Spain). In October 2016, the local press published a filtered audio recording of private deliberations between four magistrates of the High Court (Audiencia Provincial), including Judges Carlos Vielba, Salvador Alba and the Chairman of the High Court, Emilio Moya. The judges discussed their fear of Russian children attending the same school as that of magistrates’ own kids. One of the magistrates affirmed that “all Russians are criminals, in particular the young ones and with money”.

Despite the media outcry and the official request made by the Russian Consulate in Las Palmas to identify the author of these remarks, the Spanish Department of Justice has not taken any measures in the six months following the scandal, and remained suspiciously mute on the issue. To the contrary in fact, as at least one of the magistrates has been reportedly promoted since the incident.

However, according to the reports by the Spanish press, the xenophobic incident has finally picked up some traction in April 2017 and is now being investigated by the Central Directorate of Spanish Justice (Consejo General de Poder Judicial). Apparently, this shift has been propelled by a formal request made on behalf of European Parliament to clarify the status of one of the most mysterious cases in the recent history of Spanish justice.

The so-called Kokorev Case, in which the requests for information have identified both political and xenophobic undertones, begins with the decision of an investigative judge from Las Palmas, Ana Isabel de Vega Serrano, to order a pre-trial detention of the whole family of Spanish entrepreneur of Russian-Jewish origins, Vladimir Kokorev. The businessman, his wife and his son remain imprisoned on Canary Islands for almost two years, under an alleged suspicion of being the front-men for Teodoro Obiang, the President of Equatorial Guinea. During all this time, no formal accusation has been presented and only very recently the case itself have become accessible for the defending attorneys.

Curiously enough, in the very same “auto” (judicial decision), that dictated the pre-trial detention, Judge de Vega admitted that “in so far [November 2015], this court has been unable to obtain any evidence linking the funds, [received by Kokorevs] with any acquisitions of real estate for any members of Guinean government”.

Investigating judge Ana Isabel de Vega Serrano

Investigating judge Ana Isabel de Vega Serrano

That is, the very same decision that put three persons with no prior criminal history behind bars for almost two years, also acknowledges that the court has no evidence against them. The reason that this patently absurd reasoning remained legally valid was that the very same Judge de Vega Serrano redacted the admission of lacking evidence against the accused, under the excuse of the secrecy of the case. The Spanish judge kept the case against Kokorevs secret for almost five years, two of which they spent in prison, without any knowledge of what they were accused of or on basis of what evidence, since, according to Judge Serrano “such knowledge could be damaging in the proceedings”. That is, the Spanish judge reasoned that it could be damaging to her case to let the persons that she put in pre-trial detention and their lawyers to know that there was no actual evidence against them.

This Kafkaesque decision to imprison the whole family based on secret evidence and secret reasoning was appealed in several occasions before Audiencia Provincial - the high court of Las Palmas (Spain). It is worth noting that the magistrates in charge of the review had access to the whole text of the decision – unlike Kokorev’s own attorneys – that is, they were fully aware of Serrano’s awkward reasoning of ordering a pre-trial detention while also admitting to lack evidence against the accused. However, every appeal was systematically rejected.

The members of Kokorev family are kept in separate facilities in Canarian prison Juan Grande, and under the most severe penitentiary regime reserved for especially dangerous criminals and terrorists. The patriarch of the family, Vladimir Kokorev, who had suffered a minor stroke and a prostate operation shortly before the imprisonment, is denied medical attention. His requests to allow a Rabbi to visit him were also ignored for 8 months until the prison administration budged under the pressure of Spanish Jewish Association.

“It is difficult not to agree with the defence’s opinion, which states that the record is being kept secret to hide the lack of evidence against the Kokorevs, giving the impression of a political case with private interests being served. Otherwise it is impossible to explain the obvious and flagrant violations of the norms of international law and the laws of the Kingdom of Spain,” states the letter addressed to the Spanish General Prosecution Office by two MEPs.

A week after the request was made public, the judge Serrano lifted the secrecy of case with a statement “although the investigation continues, the secrecy is no longer necessary”.

To the surprise and dismay of Kokorev’s defence attorneys, the case against them is based first and foremost on the statements provided of Vladimir Kokorev’s former Panamanian attorney, Ismael Gerli. Mr. Gerli is indicted on at least two counts of forgery in Panama, forgeries that he has committed with intention of taking over several real estate properties owned by Vladimir Kokorev and his son Igor, days after their arrest. The Panamanian attorney is awaiting for a trial and currently forbidden from leaving the country.

However, this does not mean that Kokorevs’ nightmare is anywhere close to its end. There is still no date for the hearing of the case, nor any formal accusation. A new appeal of Igor Kokorev to Las Palmas High Court has been recently rejected. The reasoning of the magistrate to deny Igor bail (after having spent 18 months in prison) is as puzzling as that of the investigative judge: “the pre-trial detention does not require any evidence, or does not require for such evidence to be authentic.” It certainly seems that the justice on Canary Islands abides by its own set of very particular rules.

According to the 2017 EU Justice Scoreboard Report, fifty-eight percent (58%) of Spaniards perceive the independence of their courts as “fairly bad” or “very bad”, a 2% increase from last year. Spain is the fourth country at the bottom of the list, together with Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovakia.

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