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Thursday, May 28, 1998 Published at 07:59 GMT 08:59 UK

World: Europe

Making the mafia sweat

Organised crime's influence is felt across Europe

BBC correspondent David Shukman says organised crime is often ahead of the authorities
European justice ministers are meeting to discuss ways to combat the spread of international organised crime.

The EU Justice and Home Affairs Council will try to agree a loose political declaration setting out community-wide police and judicial standards for all member countries.

BBC correspondents say that this pact on organised crime is an attempt to improve international cooperation in the fight against mafia gangs who have taken advantage of the European single market to extend their activities across international boundaries.

Video-link witnesses

One proposal is for a standing agreement to allow witnesses in one country to give evidence in trials in other countries by video link

At present, agreements to set up video links between countries have to be negotiated for each case.

British Home Secretary Jack Straw says the Russian mafia is a threat to all of Europe
A UK Home Office official said: "Suppose there's a witness in Italy and he's too old to travel, or he's in prison and the Italians don't want to let him out - there's a whole range of reasons why it might not be appropriate for a witness to travel, but we still want access to his evidence."

The UK is already planning to bring in video links between its own courts and prisons to allow preliminary hearings to take place without the accused leaving jail.

Ministers at the two-day EU meeting in Brussels will also try to develop common standards on DNA testing, so that samples taken from suspects in one country are admissible in a court elsewhere.

Encouraging eastern Europe

BBC correspondent David Shukman reports on how the UK is helping Latvia combat smuggling by the Russian mafia
The EU ministers will also meet ministers from eastern European countries applying to join the Union to try to encourage them to strengthen their defences against organised crime.

Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovenia have serious problems with mafia gangs but many have little experience of combating crime such as money laundering.

The applicant countries will also be told to bring their legal systems up to EU standard.

"There's the idea of what the rule of law is, and there's actually implementing it," the Home Office official said.

"The question really is, are judicial procedures and the police trusted in applicant countries in the same way as they are in the Union?

"I don't think we have quite got there yet."

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