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7th Dec 2019

EU: Bulgaria, Romania must put criminals behind bars

  • 'Balkans Wake Up' - thousands of Bulgarians protested last year against government corruption (Photo: georgeXchelebiev)

Seven years after becoming EU members, Bulgaria and Romania still have trouble putting corrupt politicians behind bars, the European Commission said on Wednesday (22 January).

"What we've seen over the last seven years is steps forward in terms of organisation, the laws put in place. But still too often [we've seen] the lack of bringing people to justice, the lack of turning those investigations into successful prosecutions and then people who have committed crimes being put behind bars," EU commission spokesman Mark Gray told press in Brussels.

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Unlike Croatia, which joined last year, and the previous 10 countries which became EU members in 2004, Bulgaria and Romania are still subject to special monitoring by the EU commission in regard to judicial reforms and the fight against corruption. In the case of Bulgaria, the monitoring also covers organised crime.

"Since the last report in July 2012 Bulgaria has taken a few steps forward. However, the overall progress is not yet sufficient and remains fragile," Gray said.

He noted that in the 18 months covered by the current edition of the report, there had been three successive governments in Sofia and that this has "not helped" consolidate the reforms.

"The escape from justice of convicted leaders of organised crime and a succession of revelations of political influence on the judicial system have affected public confidence," Gray said.

Bulgaria last year saw widespread protests against government corruption and dubious political appointments to high-level positions.

But the commission report finds that very few cases of high-level corruption and organised crime were brought to conclusion in Bulgarian courts.

Romania, by comparison, fared better, with one former prime minister and several MPs convicted to several years in prison for corruption.

But the Romanian parliament in December blotted its copybook by passing a law exempting MPs and lawyers from crimes relating to corruption and conflict of interest.

The bill was later repelled by the Constitutional Court.

"The rushed and untransparent amendment by Parliament to the Criminal Code in December 2013 sparked widespread concern as a challenge to the regime for tackling corruption and promoting integrity," Gray said.

He said Romanian politicians must also adhere to a code of conduct that "respects the independence of the judiciary."

When former prime minister Adrian Nastase was convicted to four years in prison for taking bribes and €400,000 of his and his wife's illicit wealth was seized, his party colleagues said it was a political trial ordered by the president, Traian Basescu.

The current Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, compared Nastase to Ukraine's Yulia Tymoshenko - the former PM jailed in a show trial in 2012.

Meanwhile, Ponta himself is being investigated by anti-corruption prosecutors dating back to his time as a lawyer.

Gray said that Romania needs to ensure "the law applies to all and on an equal basis."

As for hopes, recently expressed by the Bulgarian foreign minister, that the monitoring will end before Sofia takes over the rotating EU presidency, in 2018, Gray said it was up to the two countries to fulfil commitments.

“This outgoing commission, which will be replaced after EU elections in May, recommends that the monitoring continues on a yearly basis,” he said.

"Normally one commission does not bind the next one, but this is our recommendation," Gray noted, adding that all EU member states want to the exercise to go on.

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