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Europe: Council Of Europe Report Says Organized Crime Poses Threat To Democracy

The Council of Europe, the body that promotes democracy and human rights throughout Europe, has issued its latest report on organized crime on the continent. The document traces the spread of criminal activity in the region and warns that, like ivy, which will eventually smother a healthy tree, organized crime is damaging societies in the region. The report finds that economic crime is the most prevalent form of cross-border criminal activity.

Prague, 26 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Council of Europe says economic crime has become a major issue in many Central and Eastern European countries.

The report, published in Strasbourg yesterday, says fraud, corruption, and other forms of economic crime represent either the main type of -- or a large proportion of -- organized criminality detected in countries such as Bulgaria, Estonia, Moldova, Serbia and Montenegro, and Slovakia.

But it is not only the Eastern transition countries which are at fault. The wealthy and long-established European Union members Belgium and the Netherlands are also listed in this category.

The 45-member Council of Europe says the money generated by economic crime, as well as the material damage it causes, far exceed those of other forms of crime. The council has long been concerned about the social impact of such activity.

One of the Council of Europe officials involved in drawing up the report, Alexander Seger, says economic crime in its multiple forms is capable of "infiltrating" democratic institutions.

"The reason an organization like the Council of Europe deals with this question of organized crime is because we believe it undermines our fundamental European objectives, including the rule of law, democracy, and human rights," Seger says.

Apart from economic crime, the other main criminal threats to European societies, as listed in the latest report, are the production and transport of illicit drugs, the trafficking in human beings -- mainly for prostitution -- and the smuggling of illegal immigrants.

Of course, Europe is much more open now than when it was rigidly divided by the Iron Curtain. That means not only commerce, people, and ideas flow across open borders from east to west and back again, but so, too, does crime.

Seger says much of the debate over the European Union's massive eastward enlargement has centered upon fears that the EU would be exposed to increased crime from the Eastern newcomers. But he says it has not turned out that way.

"It goes both ways actually," Seger says. "I think a lot of the crime in East Europe would not be possible without [criminals being able] to tap the financial sector in Western Europe, and that is particularly true for money laundering."

Going into detail, the report says Europe is the most profitable market in the world in terms of the production and trafficking of narcotics. Drug trafficking is considered the most important activity of organized crime networks in approximately one-third of the Council of Europe's member states.

The report says cocaine is prominent in Spain, Ireland, and Britain, while cannabis is found most in the Czech Republic and Britain. Amphetamines are found in Britain and Denmark, while heroin predominates in Russia. The highest usage of ecstasy occurs in Ireland, the Czech Republic, and Britain.

People are also being exploited as a commodity by organized crime networks, primarily through human trafficking and immigrant smuggling. Most victims of trafficking are women and girls, with Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, the Russian Federation, Bulgaria and Lithuania the main countries of origin.

Smuggling of illegal immigrants is typically the main type of organized crime in countries lying across pivotal east-west routes, such as Croatia and Slovenia.

The report also refers to cybercrime, which it says has links to organized crime. Criminals are using information and communications technology as tools to facilitate their activities, and to create new forms of computer crime.

For instance, there have been cases where criminal groups have hacked into banks or credit card companies and downloaded account numbers. These stolen "identities" are then quickly transmitted through the Internet to other countries, where false credit cards are produced and then used to draw cash or buy goods.

As to possible links between international terrorism and organized crime, analysts say it is difficult to establish their exact relationship. That's because much financing of terrorist groups is done through legal organizations, such as charities. But an atmosphere in which crime is allowed to flourish is one which would also offer advantages to terrorist groups.

Seger says cross-border cooperation in crime fighting is not keeping pace with cooperation among criminals. He says more use should be made of existing mechanisms.

"When you look around at international agreements [already] in place, there are many which allow for efficient and direct cooperation across borders between law-enforcement officials," Seger says. "Unfortunately, this [resource] is not fully used."

There are also new European treaties and conventions being developed, including instruments against money laundering, terrorist financing, and human trafficking. He urges Council of Europe members to quickly ratify these conventions.

The next Council of Europe annual report on organized crime -- due in December -- will focus on economic transgressions. Prior to that, the council will hold a conference on the issue in September in Portugal.