Wednesday

5th Aug 2020

Opinion

EU risks turning blind eye to Romania's Soviet-era justice

  • Anti-corruption protests in Romania (Photo: Reuters)

This week the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and vice-president Frans Timmermans raised concerns about the judicial independence and anti-corruption fight in Romania, mildly accusing the Romanian authorities for failing to address the issues highlighted in the EU's Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report of November 2017.

This somewhat tempered reaction comes in response to the latest anti-corruption protest in Bucharest on 20 January, attended by some 30,000 Romanian people, denouncing the Romanian authorities as 'thieves'.

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  • The secret police of communist-era dictator Ceausescu appear to live on in a parallel deep state (Photo: steve_lynx)

Last December, Romania's ruling party proposed changes to the criminal laws, including sanctions against judges and prosecutors acting in bad faith, ban on the use of video and audio recordings as evidence in prosecutions and decriminalisation of corruption charges, such as abuse of office and bribery, which the protesters see as an attempt to weaken the judicial independence in the country.

A conference in Brussels - also this week - highlighted how the "anti-corruption efforts in Romania [itself] became corrupt", pointing to substantial shortcomings of the Romanian justice system, such as interference by its intelligence service SRI (a former military formation) or so-called 'parallel state actions'.

Shouldn't the commission be also concerned about these issues in its CVM reports and statements ahead of the 2019 Romanian presidency of the Council of the European Union?

Securitate 2.0

Only eleven years after its EU membership, it is rather worrying that experts define the country's intelligence services as 'Securitate 2.0', highlighting its echoes of the Romanian secret police agency during the communist regime, "arresting, detaining, prosecuting and judging people at the same time" and "issuing hundreds of thousands of surveillance warrants targeting representatives of political, business and media circles".

Before becoming a member of the Union, Romania pledged to abide by the Copenhagen criteria and to uphold core EU values, such as democracy, rule of law and independence of judiciary.

How can it explain the collusion between its security services and judiciary, sometimes even going so far to allow for the recruitment of judges and prosecutors by the security service?

How can it claim to be a free and democratic society if its justice system is 'politicised', with legislators manipulating appointments to courts and disrespecting the basic principles of the separation of power?

Given the backsliding in its judiciary falling even shorter than the standards that the EU demands from its candidate states, should Romania not be facing some punitive charges?

Suspicious death

Shouldn't the EU be alarmed about the crackdown on media and opposition forces in Romania following the first anniversary of the death of the owner of the Romania Libera newspaper, businessman Dan Adamescu (referred to as the 'Romanian Magnitsky) in prison, due to poor prison conditions and lack of medical care?

Not to mention the arrest warrant based on possibly trumped-up charges against his playwright son residing in London - yet another 'corporate raiding' target in the hit list of the Romanian authorities.

What about prison conditions in Romania (overcrowding, lack of space, poor hygiene and quality of food, short duration of outdoor walks) and Romania's violation of article three of the European Convention of Human Rights prohibiting torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment according to several ECHR judgements?

Does the EU consider launching its own investigation, given that the Council of Europe's anti-torture committee announced an upcoming visit to Romanian prisons, often compared to Soviet-era gulags, where eight prisoners are made to share a12m square cell, according to several sources?

Against this backdrop, why is the EU not considered about the possible abuse of the European Arrest Warrants by Romania, which ranks third with regards to the number of international warrants issued following Turkey and Russia?

EU blind eye

In the absence of proper judicial standards, appropriate detention conditions and fair trial, shouldn't EU member states with higher judicial standards, be given more discretion to deal with such extradition requests and set aside their obligation of mutual recognition (for example, by a moratorium on the extraditions)?

Furthermore, shouldn't the EU thrive to ensure that its recent legislation on presumption of innocence and defendant's rights would be duly transposed into Romanian national law?

The current Romanian judicial system is skewed against presumption of innocence and some rulings are reproduced word for word, which is described as "cut and paste justice" by David Clarke, a political expert on Eastern Europe and former special advisor at the UK foreign office.

Authorities are reportedly exerting leverage and intimidation by implicating the families of their targets and systematically leaking evidence to media, which could create pre-trial prejudice and mitigate against a fair trial.

If the EU is to be taken as a serious defender of human rights and rule of law, it should take immediate measures to guarantee that all of the concerns raised above are addressed and ensure that Romania's judiciary is being brought into line with EU standards without further delay.

Instead of lifting its special corruption-monitoring of Romania, which Juncker declared to be ready to do until 2019, the EU should enhance its scrutiny by looking beyond the so-called 'Potemkin villages', presented to it by Romania's anti-corruption authority DNA.

The commission's monitoring reports should become more honest, critical and accurate, thoroughly assessing the Romanian justice system, by reflecting the real situation testified by multiple actors, such as the Union of the Magistrates, different NGOs etc.

If the commission further shies away from criticism and appropriate measures and yields to pressures, not only by Romania but some other member states, such as Hungary and Poland, the people of these countries, who suffered from the abuses of the communist regime for more than 50 years, could once again fall into the trap of a Soviet-era justice system.

This time under an EU umbrella.

Eli Hadzhieva is founder and director of Dialogue for Europe and is former parliamentary attache, including in the civil liberties and human rights committees, at the European Parliament

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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