EU surprised at "shocking" pressure on Romania's top court

By bne IntelliNews August 8, 2012

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Responding to a request for protection, a judicial commission of the Council of Europe says that Romania's Constitutional Court is under "shocking" political pressure ahead of its ruling on the validity of a referendum to impeach the president.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta's Social Liberal Union (USL) is trying to oust suspended President Traian Basescu, who overwhelmingly lost an impeachment referendum on July 29, but because less than 50% of the electorate turned out claims the poll was invalid so he should return to power.

The Constitutional Court was expected to invalidate the referendum because the turnout fell below that 50% threshold, but under clear pressure from the USL that the real number of voters was smaller than thought, it suddenly announced it has put off its ruling to August 31 and asked to see voter lists to assess the true size of the electorate.

The level of that pressure became clear on August 7, when a European advisory panel of constitutional judges announced it is "shocked" by the political being pressure put on Romania's top court as it prepares that decision on the referendum.

The same European commission already expressed concern in July about undue pressure on the court, and criticised "attempts to undermine its independence." Gianni Buquicchio, chairman of the so-called Venice Commission, formed of 58 academics and constitutional judges from European states ranging from Russia to Norway and Turkey, now says he has received new information in a letter "about continuing pressure and threats against individual judges."

"It is for me surprising, and even shocking, that for the second time in a short period, the constitutional court of a member state of the Council of Europe and the European Union feels obliged to appeal to the Venice Commission in order to protect its independence," said Buquicchio.

The letter, sent by Romania's chief Constitutional Court judge Augustin Zegrean, said that one judge had said he was afraid to vote on the referendum's validity after being threatened, said Buquicchio. "I appeal to all state authorities and political parties of Romania to fully respect the independence of the Constitutional Court and to refrain from exercising pressure," Buquicchio said, urging authorities to protect the judges and their families and bring those who utter threats to justice.

Buquicchio's statement, published on the website of the Council of Europe - the inter-governmental body safeguarding the rule of law and human rights in Europe - was endorsed by EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, who in recent weeks has strongly criticised the erosion of democracy and rule of law in Romania. "I agree," she wrote on her personal Twitter page, euobserver reports.

Speaking at a press conference on August 7, Prime Minister Ponta said he was "the first to have launched an appeal to politicians to refrain from any such pressure. It is one of the few times Ms Reding and I agree. But unlike Ms Reding, I live in Romania and know what's going on here." Yet even some within Ponta's own government have complained of the pressure over the referendum. Interior Minister Iaon Rus, responsible for putting together the original voters lists, resigned on August 6, claiming "unacceptable" political pressure from both interim President Crin Antonescu and the suspended Basescu.

Meanwhile, the drawn out political crisis is having a terrible effect on the Romanian economy, at a time when politicians need to put their differences aside for the good of the country. The leu has pushed to record lows and the IMF worries that the longer the bickering goes on, the more damage the recession-ridden economy may suffer. "We are a little bit worried about the situation and also the impact the political situation has on the economy," IMF mission chief Erik de Vrijer told Antonescu recently, Agerpres reports.

Antonescu, however, demurred. "This is a special political situation. I believe we can call this a political crisis. My first remark is that this political crisis does not affect negotiations with the IMF or the banks, because the government has a political programme, commitments and visions. The political crisis, which I hope will end late this month, does not influence or affect the talks. Secondly, the Romanian constitution provides the president with representation and a political role. The president is not the head of the government; the head of the government is the prime minister."

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