The Department of Justice’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training (OPDAT) Provides COVID-19 Related Technical Assistance to Partner Countries

May 21, 2020

Since 1991, OPDAT has provided expert assistance and case-based mentoring to foreign counterparts to develop justice systems that can combat transnational crime, corruption, and terrorism consistent with international standards (e.g. the UN Convention against Corruption). In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of related crime throughout the world, OPDAT provides foreign counterparts with tailored assistance and case-based mentoring – within the scope of its authorized activities – to help detect, investigate and prosecute wrongdoing related to the pandemic. Specifically, OPDAT helps counterparts combat:

  1. cyber-enabled crime and intellectual property (IP) crime;
  2. public-procurement corruption;
  3. gender-based / domestic violence; and
  4. the spread of COVID-19.

OPDAT also:

  1. supports the rule of law generally during the pandemic.

In carrying out this assistance and case-based mentoring, OPDAT relies on its unique access to some of the most experienced criminal justice experts in the nation: the Department of Justice’s over 5,000 Assistant U.S. Attorneys and 600 Criminal Division attorneys. These experts include COVID – 19 Coordinators for their respective U.S. Attorneys Offices, as well as attorneys from the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section (CCIPS). They share with foreign counterparts their experiences in combatting COVID-19 related crime, including fraud and corruption and cyber-enabled and intellectual property crime. OPDAT’s programs are funded through interagency agree­ments between OPDAT and U.S. Government partners, primarily the U.S. Department of State.

(1) Combatting cyber-enabled crime and IP crime:

Through the International Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property (ICHIP) program, which OPDAT jointly administers with CCIPS, ICHIP attorneys are applying their expertise and existing network of legal and law enforcement contacts to address the rapid growth of cyber-based fraud schemes and intellectual property violations stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Examples of their work include:

  • Brazil: in an ICHIP-supported action, a state prosecutor in Brazil took down a fake site purporting to belong to a leading Brazilian brewery. The website publicized the distribution of free sanitizer, but in fact was infecting the computer systems of numerous Brazilian consumers with malware. The ICHIP-mentored prosecutor further requested that the site’s U.S.-based registrar suspend it and preserve any account and transactional data linked to the site. The investigation is ongoing, and the ICHIP continues to mentor the prosecutor remotely on this case and on best practices for engaging with U.S. registrars and providers. The ICHIP also put out a Public Service Announcement with tips for consumers to avoid online COVID-19 scams and to navigate the internet safely (posted on the U.S. Consulate in São Paulo’s Facebook and Instagram pages). Previously, ICHIP-mentored Brazilian Ministry of Justice officials created a webpage warning Brazilians about cyber scams exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic such as phone calls or emails ostensibly containing health updates or pleas for donations. 
ICHIP-mentored Brazilian Ministry of Justice officials launched a COVID-19 cyber scams page.

ICHIP-mentored Brazilian Ministry of Justice officials launched a COVID-19 cyber scams page.

  • Hong Kong: in honor of World IP Day, the ICHIP sent out a PSA encouraging collaboration on COVID-19 IPR criminal enforcement (produced by the U.S. Consulate and posted to its Facebook page).
  • Nigeria: an ICHIP-produced video on the risk of counterfeit medicines was featured during a live TV show on the Nigerian Television Authority.  Following the video, the ICHIP-inspired, Embassy-produced movie, Fishbone, on the risk of counterfeit medicines, was televised.  The ICHIP's video and Fishbone were featured on all local and international NTA networks on April 26 in honor of World IP Day.  To bolster engagement with online audiences, Fishbone premiered on YouTube on May 1st, 2020 and has generated over 72,000 views.  In Niger, an ICHIP-mentored police officer and member of the ICHIP’s Africa Regional Pharma Crime Working Group recently shared pictures of seized, unauthorized COVID-19 medicine with the Group.  
  • Romania: OPDAT, through the ICHIP program, partnered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and INTERPOL to organize and conduct a webinar focused on COVID-19 related cyber and IP crimes. U.S. Ambassador Adrian Zuckerman and Romanian Minister of Justice Catalin Predoiu delivered opening remarks. One presenter also discussed practical measures to take down websites being used to perpetrate these offenses. The Romanian Ministry of Justice issued a press release in which the Justice Minister praised the event, highlighting that “[i]t is time to make sure that the Internet will not become a playground for cybercriminals and hackers” and that the cooperation between the Ministry of Justice and the U.S. government is “a cornerstone in our action strategy against domestic and international crime.”  In addition to ICHIP presenters, INTERPOL, EUROPOL, National IPR Center/Homeland Security Investigations, Food and Drug Administration, and Council of Europe representatives also delivered presentations. More than 60 Romanian officials, primarily prosecutors and law enforcement officers, participated.
U.S. Ambassador Adrian Zuckerman (center left); Romanian Minister of Justice Catalin Predoiu

U.S. Ambassador Adrian Zuckerman (center left); Romanian Minister of Justice Catalin Predoiu (bottom left); Kirsten Pedersen, Head of International IP Crime Investigators College, INTERPOL (top right); and ICHIP Scott Kerin (bottom right) presenting during the April 30 webinar on COIVD-19 related cyber and IP crimes.

(2) Combatting public procurement corruption:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina: OPDAT is providing case-based mentoring to Bosnian counterparts on several significant investigations that involve fraud in procurement of medical equipment during COVID-19.  OPDAT has also convened four virtual roundtables for Bosnian prosecutors and public procurement officials to build coordination on the detection, investigation, and prosecution of fraud in emergency procurement during COVID-19. The virtual roundtables also helped raise awareness on other abuses that are taking place during the pandemic; they include illegal hiring in public institutions and donation of humanitarian funds with the intent to influence upcoming elections.  Local prosecutors and officials note that OPDAT’s programs have helped raise awareness about abuses during COVID-19 and have resulted in multiple referrals of cases involving corruption in public procurement to prosecutors’ offices. The Tuzla Canton Prosecutor’s Office published a video on its YouTube page in which the office recognized U.S. assistance in establishing such cooperation within the government.
  • Serbia: OPDAT co-hosted the first in a series of virtual case-based mentoring roundtables for Serbian prosecutors.  The roundtable helped to share best practices and raise awareness of proactive steps the U.S. Department of Justice is taking to protect individuals and businesses from COVID-related crimes, including procurement fraud, bribery, and other forms of corruption.  The appointment of COVID-19 fraud coordinators at prosecutors’ offices, the creation of e-hotlines for the public to report suspect frauds and corruption, and the formation of multi-agency COVID-crimes task forces are proactive measures that can help keep the public safe, in the United States and abroad. 

(3) Combatting gender-based / domestic violence:

Albania: OPDAT has provided support to Albania’s Victim Coordinators, whose positions OPDAT helped to establish in partnership with Albania’s Prosecutor General’s Office, to continue helping victims of violent crime, including domestic and sexual violence, during the COVID-19 Pandemic. These Victim Coordinators are able to work remotely, thanks to laptops, which were donated through OPDAT prior to the onset of the pandemic. 

  • Bosnia: OPDAT co-sponsored with the Atlantic Initiative, a roundtable of prosecutors, judges, and NGO representatives throughout Bosnia to discuss the justice system’s response to domestic violence crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many victims to shelter in place with their abusers.  
  • Kosovo: OPDAT has provided support for victims advocates and helpline providers who are assisting victims on domestic violence in Kosovo and experiencing increased danger from the COVID-19 movement restrictions. Through virtual instruction and consultations, OPDAT has provided guidance to victims advocates on developing safety plans with victims, presenting compelling evidence in domestic violence cases, and facilitating the use of risk assessment tools by judges when considering protection orders.  OPDAT also supported the work of Kosovo’s emergency helpline providers by providing virtual training on counseling victims over the phone during the crisis.

(4) Helping to combat the spread of COVID-19:

  • Africa: OPDAT has been tracking its African counterparts’ COVID-19 remediation efforts in their prison populations. In Ethiopia alone, according to the U.S. Embassy, over 44,000 prisoners have been ordered released. OPDAT’s tracking has helped spur discussion among African counterparts and others on how to advocate for early release and to approach excessive pre-trial detention and related priorities during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. In Cameroon, OPDAT has advised the Ministry of Justice, which supervises the prisons, regarding the dangers of COVID-19 in Cameroon’s prisons. On April 15, Cameroon’s President issued a decree commuting the sentences of numerous prisoners. According to the U.S. Embassy, over 3,000 convicted inmates have been released. In coordination with the CDC, OPDAT continues to advise the Ministry of Justice on reducing the pre-trial population and mitigating the risk of transmission by releasing inmates. In Mali, OPDAT assisted the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children and UNODC in hosting a French-language online webinar, including a discussion on the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic on the vulnerability of children.
  • Burma: In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, OPDAT drafted a series of detailed recommendations to assist the Burmese Government in preventing an explosion of COVID-19 cases in its overcrowded prison system, including reducing the prison population and introducing better practices to counter infectious diseases inside prisons. As part of the annual amnesty marking Thingyan, Burma’s Buddhist New Year, the Government announced that it was releasing 24,896 prisoners (of the entire 92,000 prison population).
  • Qatar: In Qatar, an OPDAT alumnus was appointed to head the country’s newly created Health Prosecutions Office, which enforces measures taken by the Government of Qatar to contain the spread of COVID-19. The prosecutor previously had participated in the first U.S.-Qatar Prosecutor Exchange Program, an OPDAT program that familiarizes Qatar prosecutors with the U.S. justice sector.

(5) Supporting the rule of law during the pandemic:

  • Bulgaria:  The U.S. Embassy Resident Legal Advisor held a virtual roundtable on April 22 with representatives of Bulgarian civil society organizations. This is part of an ongoing series of roundtables that the Embassy holds with civil society representatives.
  • El Salvador: El Salvadorian police have struggled to properly enforce the country’s quarantine law.  OPDAT helped develop guidelines, which can be used by police to help them properly and fairly enforce the law. Separately, an OPDAT-mentored judge and alumnus of OPDAT’s Judicial Studies Institute inspected the conditions at a COVID-19 quarantine facility. Through its working relationship with judges in El Salvador, OPDAT has helped the country maintain the rule of law in the face of COVID-19 exigencies.
  • Kosovo: OPDAT has provided extensive consultations with the Kosovo Judicial Council and Kosovo Prosecutorial Council on developing policy measures which will allow the justice system to continue essential operations and protect the rule of law during the pandemic.  This assistance has resulted in the assignment of on-call judges and administrative staff, permitting electronic filings, tolling of statutory limitations when permitted by law, and the development of an action plan on how to deal with cases approaching the end of their statute of limitation. 
  • Philippines: OPDAT and CCIPS led a virtual roundtable for Philippine prosecutors on the implementation of “E-Inquest.” The newly launched electronic platform is for conducting virtual criminal proceedings in cases of warrantless arrests. OPDAT and CCIPS helped troubleshoot some problems associated with the rollout to ensure the continued use of “E-Inquest.” The workshop is now sought after by other Philippine justice sector partners who seek to employ similar means to carry out their mission amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Metro Manila and other cities in the Philippines are locked down with all courts closed for in-person hearings. The Philippine Supreme Court issued a directive for courts to use video conference court hearings for urgent criminal matters involving detainees. In response, OPDAT and CCIPS immediately hosted an online roundtable for a Cebu City Regional Trial Court judge, his staff, the city jail warden, and representatives from the prosecution and public defender’s office. Due to growing demand, ODPAT and CCIPS will provide future roundtables for other courts. 
  • Romania:  The U.S. Resident Legal Advisor recently hosted a virtual roundtable with representatives of Romanian civil society organizations on preserving the rule of law during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The discussion centered on the implications of emergency measures on the rule of law, including access to justice, health and information.  Participants also discussed government transparency and accountability and the pandemic’s impact on independent media and minority communities.

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Updated May 21, 2020