By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - It may take years to hold perpetrators of war crimes in Ukraine accountable, the European Union's top justice official told Reuters on Monday, but those responsible should know the threat of prosecution will hang over them "forever".
EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders spoke as the United States and more than 40 other countries work to align evidence to help prosecution and trials for atrocities Russian troops committed in Ukraine.
"It will be for the next weeks, next months, next years, maybe for the next decades. For some cases, it will be very fast. It will be longer for others," said Reynders.
"But it is also a clear message to the Russian authorities - the risk of these investigations and prosecutions and trials will hang over them for the rest of their lives. It's forever."
Reynders said Russia's war in Ukraine marked the first time the international community started working to bring those guilty of war crimes to justice even before the conflict ended.
Russia has repeatedly denied involvement in war crimes or deliberately attacking civilians since it invaded Ukraine in February. It says it launched a "special military operation" to root out Ukrainian nationalists.
Russian forces have bombed Ukrainian cities to ruins and left behind bodies in the streets of towns and villages they occupied. Ukraine says tens of thousands of civilians have died.
The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) would handle suspected cases of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
Reynders said the EU's 28 states were seeking to provide material and staffing assistance to help document suspected crimes, including collecting testimonies of sexual violence in settings more supportive of victims than a police station.
"That costs a lot and is not easy to put in place in developed countries like EU members on a regular day. It's even harder in a country like Ukraine, which is at war," he said.
Reynders said six EU states - Luxembourg, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland and Austria - each froze at least one billion euros of Russian oligarch assets, together accounting for 12.8 of the total of 13.9 billion euros blocked in Europe so far.
"The size of oligarchs' assets and the assets of the Russian central bank are completely different. You are not going to rebuild Ukraine with some billions from the oligarchs. In the case of the Russian central bank, we are talking about hundreds of billions," said Reynders.
"We are discussing how to organise confiscation without conviction but there are many legal problems around that, we are no sure about this yet," he added.
He said the United States, Canada and Italy have had some experience with civil forfeiture but that he believed a clear link to a crime, for example corruption, was needed for such confiscations to be legally sound.
Otherwise, the West could continue holding the money frozen for as long as Russia refuses to pay up for rebuilding Ukraine, he said, as the West looks for ways to bring justice to perpetrators and victims alike.
"These funds could serve as a guarantee of Russian participation in the reconstruction of Ukraine. It is possible to freeze for a long time, rather than forfeit," said Reynders.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by William Maclean)