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EU lawyer on Ukraine investigation: “It’s an ongoing process”

As President of Eurojust, Ladislav Hamran knows how war crimes investigations in Ukraine are going: they are a particular challenge.

People stand at a mass grave wearing white protective suits and face coverings

Lyman, Ukraine, October 7th, 2022: Forensic scientists examine a mass grave Photo: Yevgen Honcharenko/epa

taz: Mr. Hamran, you founded the International Center for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression against Ukraine in July (ICPA) co-founded. The center is intended to collect evidence to prosecute Russian war crimes in Ukraine and prepare charges against perpetrators. How have you progressed?

Ladislav Hamran: Accountability begins with evidence. The collection of evidence is therefore essential. We are several countries observing the situation from different perspectives. It is very important to bring these countries, our partners, together and understand who is doing what, what dimension the investigations have, what their legal basis is, how far they have progressed and what their goals are. This is a fragmented starting point, with evidence scattered around the world.

Do you mean digital evidence?

Correct. We are seeing a trend for this material to outweigh witness accounts, victim statements and physical evidence. Digital evidence exists in different places, so good communication and cooperation with countries outside the EU is essential, as well as with servers and internet services. Some of these are based in the USA. This explains why the US participates in the ICPA.

What does that mean specifically?

That prosecutors and investigators, experts, police and intelligence officers either come to The Hague or are permanently at the ICPA site and discuss legal, practical and logistical aspects of the crime of a war of aggression.

What challenges does the ICPA bring with it?

At the beginning we had to find a consistent definition of the crime of aggressive war. Then you need experts who can provide the investigators with neutral, objective and solid expertise. Added to this is the strong fragmentation: We have national investigations, but evidence is spread around the world, some of which may also be secret. If access is through intelligence services, military or security forces of different countries, we need to find out whether they want to share their material with us. In some cases, intelligence evidence must be converted into admissible evidence. There are different national requirements.

A joint investigation team, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), was set up to coordinate the investigation. Who is there?

Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania. Just three weeks after the conflict began in February 2022, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania launched the JIT – the other countries joined gradually. There is also an agreement (a memorandum of understanding) with the US to quickly share information and evidence.

What kind of evidence have you been able to collect so far?

First of all, we have many interviews with refugees from Ukraine’s neighboring countries who directly witnessed various crimes and were able to testify about them – including victims of atrocities. We also received photos and videos from them or relatives who are still in Ukraine, audio recordings of intercepted conversations between Russian soldiers and commanders, and numerous satellite and drone images. There is a lot of military evidence and so-called battlefield evidence from the front. In addition, there are IP and email addresses or telephone numbers via Ukrainian telecommunications and other electronic communication between soldiers and their relatives in Russia.

Can conclusions be drawn from this?

At this point, we already know troop locations and which military departments operate in certain regions. The Ukrainian partners have a lot of medical, forensic and military expertise.

How do you proceed?

We need analysts, not just for data, but also legal experts who can evaluate videos and photos. Our aim is to not just be a storage space for the respective national authorities. We want to understand what is recorded on it from a legal perspective. Another challenge is to centralize this fragmented evidence in a database that we have created for this purpose: the Core International Crime Evidence Database (CICED). It collects the evidence from individual national authorities in a common location, which requires not only legal and data expertise but also secure transfer tools and storage space. But gathering evidence doesn’t always go hand in hand with investigations.

How many pieces of evidence are we talking about?

It’s about thousands.

What has happened at your headquarters in The Hague since the ICPA was founded?

The member states are very committed. The public prosecutors also worked hard during the summer holidays in The Hague to prepare the first ICPA meeting, which took place here in late summer. There are countries whose public prosecutors are permanently represented here and those who come here regularly. This is an ongoing process.

Is there an interim conclusion?

Documenting this type of crime requires significant international effort and a lot of commitment from various actors. One country alone cannot carry out such an investigation.

You have been President of Eurojust since 2017. What does the ICPA project mean to you?

I am encouraged that we, as an international community of prosecutors, are investigating and documenting these war crimes across borders. These initiatives go in the right direction to ensure international accountability.

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