Romanian Courts, Prosecutors Get New Blow From the Government

(Bloomberg) -- Romania’s government moved to hamstring the country’s anti-corruption office and threaten the judicial independence with a decree that may weaken the fight against graft and halt investigations.

The move triggered a new warning about democratic backsliding from the European Union as the bloc battles efforts by governments, including those in Poland and Hungary, to subject courts to more political control. Romania’s case is fueled by the ruling Social Democratic Party’s fight to ease convictions that have put scores of its members behind bars and blocked its leader, Liviu Dragnea, from becoming prime minister.

Ignoring calls from the European Commission to avoid hasty legislative changes that could weaken the rule of law, Prime Minister Viorica Dancila’s cabinet passed a bill Tuesday to limit the power of the prosecutor general, give more sway to a newly established body that investigates magistrates and prevent interim appointments for chief prosecutor positions.

“The changes will block the activity of the anti-corruption office,” the anti-graft directorate said in a statement Wednesday. Dancila, the prime minister, defended the changes and said she wants an “independent judiciary and a continued fight against corruption.”

No Time

Because investigations require the sign-off of chief prosecutors, banning interim positions will effectively prevent the anti-graft directorate from moving ahead on any cases. Aside from the top anti-graft and judicial prosecutors, many more magistrates are working in an acting capacity.

The European Commission “is following with great concern the latest developments concerning the rule of law in Romania,” spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels. “Both the content and the procedure of the latest changes -- using emergency ordinances without any consultations with the judiciary and stakeholders -- seem to be in direct contradiction with the recommendations of the commission.”

The anti-graft office argued there’s not enough time to replace its current leadership, whose interim positions end on March 20. The acting head of the directorate, Calin Nistor, is the second interim holder of the office since Laura Codruta Kovesi was toppled last year.

Nistor, who took over the office after the president rejected a cabinet-proposed candidate to replace Kovesi, would be removed next month, according to the statement. For Kovesi’s part, she’s the front-runner to become the EU’s top prosecutor. But she’s now under investigation by the new judicial body, which may undermine her candidacy.

The decree drew sharp criticism from legal experts, opposition parties and President Klaus Iohannis, who has clashed with the government over its efforts to overhaul the courts. The opposition Liberal Party initiated a motion against Justice Minister Tudorel Toader to compel him to cancel the decree. It said it plans to ask the opinion of the Venice Commission, a panel of constitutional experts that advises the Council of Europe, which is the continent’s leading human rights body.

Similar attempts by the ruling party to amend the judiciary legislation and weaken an anti-corruption drive led to the largest protests since the fall of Communism in 2017. Since then though, other gradual changes have failed to prompt massive demonstrations.

“The Social Democrats have acted again against the judiciary and the rule of law, against Romania and its citizens,” Iohannis said. “Romania cannot be at the beck and call of those who want to impose political control over the judiciary."

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