A package of reforms to Romania’s criminal justice system was submitted to the parliament on October 31 in the face of strong opposition from President Klaus Iohannis, magistrates and civil society.
The amendments put forward by Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party address issues raised by officials in the sector, but they also seek to increase political control over the judiciary as well as introducing changes that if adopted would help PSD officials including party leader Liviu Dragnea avoid prosecution.
The Ministry of Justice has drafted amendments to laws 303/2004 (on the prosecutors’ statute), 304/2004 (on judiciary organisation) and 317/2004 (on Romania’s magistrate’s body, the CSM), which were sent to the parliament on October 31 after brief consultations with the CSM.
Opponents, including Iohannis and the SCM, are concerned about the negative impact on the rule of law and particularly the fight against corruption.
“[A]mong [the amendments] are … proposals aimed at increasing political control of prosecutors and magistrates. Also, there are changes that include plans to redefine crimes related to abuse of office and neglect in public service; which would help some politicians avoid prosecution for charges they are currently facing. In recent years, a number of high-ranking politicians, including PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, have been convicted of abuse of office or corruption,” writes Otilia Dhand, senior vice president of Teneo Intelligence, in an October 31 note.
Dhand forecasts that the initiative “may generate a new round of public protests early next year, suggesting an increased risk of government instability”. At the beginning of 2017, Romania was shaken by the largest protests since the fall of communism, as half a million people took to the streets to protest against attempts to water down anti-corruption efforts.
Justice Minister Tudorel Toader defended the latest changes in a debate on Antena 3 TV station on October 31. “I want to underline that the vote is also the desire to preserve the privileges that the magistrates currently enjoy,” he said, as quoted by Hotnews.
However, the move has been slammed by head prosecutor Augustin Lazar. The amendments aim at tight political control over the public ministry’s prosecutors, Lazar said in an interview with Revista 22 on October 31.
The amendments sent by the ministry to the parliament include provisions that simply breach the constitution, Lazar stressed, highlighting government’s plans to place the judiciary inspection (magistrates’ internal control body investigating potential misconduct) “outside the judiciary system”. The formula is not only vague (making the body prone to political control) but also breaches the constitution since it would breach the independence of the judiciary system itself, Lazar explained.
The CSM has already issued a negative review on the proposals. While the CSM’s review is only consultative, the presidency has hinted that it is still relevant.
"Even if the vote [by the CSM on its review] is consultative, the government and the parliament can not ignore it,” presidency spokesperson Madalina Dobrovolschi stated immediately after the magistrates' decision.
The heated dispute over the judicial amendments is impairing the government’s capacity to cope with the economic issues that are accumulating rapidly. In an effort to gain public support for the amendments, the government is going forward with an expansionary fiscal policy that threatens Romania’s macroeconomic stability. Corporate management policy is being weakened in an attempt to secure more money for the budget, while fiscal policy has lost predictability and the budget deficit is expected to significantly exceed 3% of GDP this year and in the years to come.
Further controversy has erupted over what could become an attempt to remove the head of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) Laura Codruta Kovesi, who has spearheaded the country’s anti-corruption drive.
On October 31, Toader announced that he has not made a final decision on Kovesi, despite a positive report drafted by an ad-hoc committee investigating DNA activity.
Toader said he might either consider or disregard the review. The final decision on whether to dismiss Kovesi is a decision to be proposed by the ministry of justice, Toader stressed. However, he added that by law the final decision has to be taken by Iohannis.
Meanwhile, the CSM has initiated another check of the DNA’s activity to investigate topics not yet clarified, hotnews.ro reported.