Conflict between Romanian judges and prosecutors worsens

By bne IntelliNews September 22, 2016

Romania’s Minister of Justice Raluca Pruna has criticised the “Memorandum on Justice” drafted by the Judges’ Association (UNJR), in which judges complain about unfair treatment and express a list of requests including higher wages.

Judges’ complaints and some recent decisions against prosecutors might have a significant impact in the context of the December 11 parliamentary elections. The Social Democrats (PSD) and even to a larger extent their ally Liberal Democrats (ALDE) headed by Calin Popescu Tariceanu have increasingly expressed criticism against the prosecutors and against what they call the abuses of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). Judges’ criticisms of the DNA and particularly the scrapping of evidence produced by DNA prosecutors, for example in the recent case against Craiova mayor Lia Olguta Vasilescu, support the claims of the PSD and ALDE, and could help them win the elections.

Magistrates have not been among the public servants who received wage hikes during the past year, UNJR complained. They also want the budget of courts to be managed by the magistrates’ body (CSM) and not by the ministry, in the same way as prosecutors manage their own budget. The judges’ professional association has asked Pruna to resign.  

However, Pruna indicated the ministry is not inclined to meet their requests. The judges’ complaints might be relevant to some extent, if the judges themselves had not received disproportionate privileges as well, Pruna said in the his open response to the memorandum. Pruna mentioned that wages are already high, and allowances of up to €600 per month are paid to judges for accommodation and pensions on top of the €22,000 per month paid to judges.

On September 21, the UNJR severely criticised the DNA over head prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi’s comments on the senate’s vote on former minister of interior Gabriel Oprea. The DNA had previously criticised senators’ decision to block further investigations into Oprea. 

On the same day, a court in Bucharest scrapped around 80% of the evidence collected by the DNA against Vasilescu, making the case irrelevant. The DNA had indicted her for bribe taking, money laundering and influence trafficking. Judges claimed there were irregularities in the procedures used for collecting evidence.

Although the memorandum does not directly mention this, judges’ complaints are fuelled by what they claim to be the preferential treatment of prosecutors, particularly prosecutors from the DNA. The conflict between the DNA and judges has deeper roots and has developed in time. The DNA has been developed as the driving force behind the judicial reforms and its activity, which has broad public support, has been constantly cheered by the European Commission’s reports under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). 

In contrast, lawmakers’ resistance to prosecutors’ investigations and the sometimes inconsistent decisions of the courts have been criticised in the CVM reports. Judges have now asked for full disclosure of the procedures used for evaluating magistrates’ activity in the CVM reports and full disclosure of NGOs’ contributions to the CVM reports.

In the initial draft of its ‘2014 Activity Report’, the DNA expressed open criticism to a series of decisions taken by judges. However, as revealed by tolo.ro, the anticorruption prosecutors had to eliminate the remarks from the final draft in response to a demand from the CSM made at the request of judges.

Strongly backed by former President Traian Basescu after he unexpectedly defeated the autocratic PSD leader Adrian Nastase in 2008, the DNA took a robust stance against corruption and it received broad public support. Following public frustration with the high perceived corruption during Nastase’s term as prime minister, prosecutors’ actions received a high level of attention, including the extensive coverage arrests by the TV channels. 

However, sentiment towards the DNA has changed since then. It may be because the DNA is taking on sophisticated cases, or because DNA prosecutors have excessively used the right to arrest suspects before indicting them, but the anticorruption actions are increasingly the subject of debate. 

The scrapping of evidence in the Vasilescu case is relevant in this regard. The decision can be appealed, but it has already sparked a debate over the means used by prosecutors and about their final purposes. 

The DNA has shifted from obvious embezzlement and bribe-taking cases to more sophisticated cases that are not directly addressed by current legislation. Recent examples include the case of former Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who derived electoral benefits in a case concerning businessman turned MP Sebastian Ghita, or former Interior Minister Gabriel Oprea, suspected of abuse of power. Such cases are not uncommon in developed countries, but Romanian and the local regulations might not yet be prepared. Nonetheless, prosecuting such cases of abuse of power and non-tangible benefits is critical for the eradication of corruption in the local administration and state-owned companies.

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