From Courts to Spies, Romanian Coalition Hounds Opponents

(Bloomberg) -- Romania’s government started an investigation against a former anti-corruption prosecutor, a move that opponents say fits into a pattern of going after critics through administrative means including budget cuts.

The Social Democratic-led administration has followed its regional counterparts in Hungary and Poland in pursuing an overhaul of the legal system despite criticism from opposition figures and the European Union that it is eroding democratic standards. During the drive, it has enacted changes to water down a criminal code that has led to convictions of scores of officials in the ruling party and barred its leader, Liviu Dragnea, from becoming prime minister.

Late on Wednesday, a newly formed office established to investigate magistrates of the court made anti-graft prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi its first high-powered target, opening a probe against her into allegations of abuse of office, bribery and making false statements.

The ruling party defended the judiciary overhaul saying the changes give Kovesi "enough guarantees that her rights will be respected during the probe."

Kovesi will "have a fair trial in case the investigation will lead to that,” the party said in a statement, calling on politicians to refrain from comments on the case during the legal procedure.

Political Tool

President Klaus Iohannis, an opponent of the new office that investigates magistrates, urged the institution on Thursday to abide by the law and swiftly clear the matter of Kovesi’s investigation.

“This special office must not, under any circumstance, be used as a political tool to investigate and intimidate magistrates and prosecutors,” Iohannis said in an e-mailed statement. “I’ve contested this office from the beginning, along with the European Commission, because there aren’t enough guarantees that it will stay independent from political factors.”

On Friday, ruling-party lawmakers will approve the 2019 state budget, including funding cuts of as much as 15 percent for prosecutors who tackle corruption and organized crime and intelligence services, after securing extra votes from ethnic minorities in the Bucharest assembly. Those services said they are being targeted as part of a crackdown against institutions that helped send waves of corrupt politicians to prison, with Chief Prosecutor Augustin Lazar warning that his office won’t be able to meet its goals.

“Cutting our budget is similar to lowering the service’s operational capacity,” George Voinescu, a general at the Romanian Intelligence Service, said during parliamentary hearings. “We’ve crossed a red line that jeopardizes the country’s national security.”

Kovesi, who was the driving force behind the anti-graft campaign that has jailed many ruling party officials, denied wrongdoing and said the case was a retaliation to her front-running candidacy for the EU’s top prosecutor job and opening a lawsuit against the government at the European Court of Human Rights.

The probe “is revenge,” Kovesi said late Wednesday. A top prosecutor at the office designed to prosecute magistrates defended the investigation against Kovesi and said the timing adheres to official procedure that doesn’t allow for “a double standard.”

Dragnea, the country’s de facto leader, personally submitted the proposal to cut off funding to the country’s intelligence services, which he has denounced as “the deep state,” echoing conspiracy theories embraced by nationalist leaders around the world.

After floating punitive measures against members Poland and Hungary, the European Union slammed Romania in November, saying the country had reversed progress in tackling high-level corruption.

"All we care about is staying alive and free to be able to keep our coalition together and see this overhaul through," Dragnea said late December in a TV interview. "I have high hopes that we’ll succeed in dismantling, destroying and tearing into tiny pieces this underground system, this deep state."

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