Tensions Rise as MPs Target Romania’s Justice System

Ioana Burtea

Summer in Bucharest is always hot and sticky. It’s 30 degrees Celsius before you even brush your teeth in the morning. It smells of exhaust pipes and rotting garbage dumped behind bushes. But lately, the stench has been coming from elsewhere.

A protestor waves the Romanian flag outside parliament in Bucharest during a June 20 demonstration against justice system reforms by the ruling Social Democratic Party. Photo by Octav Ganea/Inquam Photos.

In a saga of crossed lines and desperate pushbacks, the justice system has taken a battering in recent months as the ruling Social Democratic Party, PSD, have rammed through changes with seemingly no other aim than to protect their own interests. Right now, few things stand in their way.

Tension between progress and regression in Romanian politics and society is not new. Since the PSD returned to power in late 2016, its lawmakers have tried to loosen anti-corruption legislation and make it more difficult for prosecutors to pursue graft investigations. They justify the reforms by saying prosecutors tend to be overzealous and disregard suspects’ human rights. Corruption fighters say it’s all a ruse to stop them holding power to account.

After months of parliamentary wrangling, PSD lawmakers in December amended Romania’s three “laws of justice” governing the judiciary, despite bitter opposition from President Klaus Iohannis, protests from magistrates and concerns about judicial independence raised by civil society and European officials.

While the changes could have been worse, critics are alarmed at ambiguous phrasing in the legislation around harsher sanctions for judges and prosecutors accused of “judicial errors”. They say the language is subject to interpretation and opens the door to political interference.

European constitutional experts are still reviewing the amendments but at home the president has run out of options to stop them being implemented.

Meanwhile, a decision by the constitutional court in late-May caused yet more uproar. The country’s highest court ruled that the president has no right to stop the government from firing Laura Codruta Kovesi, Romania’s chief anti-graft prosecutor.

Kovesi, head of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate, is known worldwide as a scourge of corruption but critics in Romania accuse her of valuing quantity over quality in investigations and relying too much on the secret service to pursue her office’s cases.

The justice minister initiated her dismissal in February on grounds that she is a bad manager and has hurt Romania’s reputation abroad by criticising the government in interviews with foreign media.

Iohannis was having none of it – not least because legal mechanisms dictate that the president be part of the decision-making chain when it comes to removing the anti-corruption chief. But the court ruling means that from now on the justice minister has sole discretion over the fate of a chief prosecutor.

It also means Iohannis needs to fire Kovesi pretty soon if he doesn’t want to be impeached, although the court has given him no timeframe. Iohannis has yet to decide what to do.

Legal experts in Romania say a necessary step to guarantee the independence of prosecutors would be to modify an ambiguous article in the constitution stating that prosecutors work under the authority of the justice minister.

Frequently used by the ruling party to justify its legal reforms, it is unclear if the article merely delineates an administrative hierarchy or has a direct bearing on prosecutors’ investigations and the positions they occupy. The constitution can only be changed with a national referendum – but another ruling by the constitutional court, in mid-June, has left the president with limited powers to organise one.

Lawmakers inflicted the most serious blow to Romania’s justice system on a single night on June 11 when they passed dozens of amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code, making it harder for prosecutors to gather evidence, seize ill-gotten fortunes or use evidence of new crimes while investigating past ones.

And in a move unheard of in mature justice systems, the lawmakers threw out the concept of “reasonable doubt”. Now, the standard to convict someone is to prove they’re guilty “beyond doubt”.

The next few days will probably bring more disruption and anger, especially since parliament should theoretically start a summer break soon and the PSD is likely to rush through more changes in the meantime.

Romania’s anti-corruption law, an 18-year-old piece of legislation that revolutionised the way high-level corruption is prosecuted, is now the next target. If that too is mutilated, politicians such as PSD leader Liviu Dragnea – sentenced on Thursday to three-and-a-half years in jail for abuse of office – will have an easier time avoiding prison.

Suddenly, under the staleness of the summer heatwave, the country seems to have regressed at least 15 years to a time when prosecutors who challenged the ruling party had their careers destroyed and lives threatened, and when society was too disillusioned to protest.

At least the younger generation is relatively vigilant. Protests are popular, the media is more diverse and civil society is more developed.

On June 20, tensions erupted into scuffles as Dragnea’s lawmakers clashed with journalists in parliament who were trying to interview him.

Out on the streets, more than 4,000 people demonstrated in Bucharest against the PSD’s amendments to the criminal code. They chanted anti-corruption and anti-government slogans, called the PSD “the red plague” and waved Romanian, EU and US flags as well as portraits of Kovesi.

It is yet to be seen if protests will remain peaceful and if people will keep their cool in these turbulent times.

Ioana Burtea is a Romanian reporter covering the justice beat for DoR magazine, a non-fiction quarterly.

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Ioana Burtea

Ioana Burtea is a Romanian reporter covering the justice beat for DoR magazine, a non-fiction quarterly.