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News 31 Aug 17

Romanian Minister Ignores Fury Over Justice Reforms

Romanian Justice Minister has vowed to push ahead a controversial bill that allegedly threatens the independence of the justice system, despite intense criticism. 

Ana Maria Touma
BIRN
Bucharest
The justice reform bill proposed by Minister of Justice Tudorel Toader needs to be approved by the cabinet and then by the Parliament. Photo: David Holt/ Flikr

Romania’s Justice Minister Tudorel Toader has vowed to push ahead with the adoption of a controversial justice reform package, despite street protests and sharp criticism from prosecutors, magistrates and Western embassies.

Experts say the changes pose a distinct risk to the independence of the justice system. However, Toader said on Wednesday he will not give up.

“I’m sending it [the package] to the [Higher Magistrates] Council and I’m going to wait until we get that back and then I’m sending it to the cabinet … and then the decision-making procedure begins,” he told journalists, referring to the fact that the bill needs to go through parliament.

The Justice Minister, a former prosecutor and law professor, has been under fire for the past week after he last Wednesday presented a justice reform bill to cabinet that contains controversial changes to the way cases, including graft, are prosecuted.

One key change is that the Attorney General and the heads of the National Anti Corruption Directorate, DNA, and the Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism, DIICOT, would in future be appointed by the Higher Magistrates’ Council, CSM, on the proposal of the Justice Minister.

Currently, they are appointed by the CSM on the proposal of the President.

Also, new chief prosecutors will be obliged to oversee and approve every case that their subordinate prosecutors handle.

Another significant change is that the Justice Minister will be in charge of the Judicial Inspection, an internal disciplinary body dealing with magistrates’ misconduct.

These three proposals in Toader’s bill might place serious limits on the independence of prosecutors, experts on the rule of law warn.

Some proposals in the bill are seen as absolutely necessary. The problem is that some will decisively affect the balance of power in the state, strengthening the executive at the cost of the judiciary, political analyst Codru Vrabie and rule-of-law activist Ovidiu Vanghele wrote in an analysis published by Funky Citizens, an NGO that promotes rule of law.

The three measures proposed by Toader - taking the Judicial Inspection out of the hands of the justice system and placing it under the control of the executive, removing the President's power to appoint chief prosecutors and giving the latter control over all their subordinates’ cases – are all potentially “devastating for the justice system as we know it,” Vrabie and Vaghele said.

Once chief prosecutors are proposed by the Minister of Justice, who is appointed by a political party, they will be vulnerable to political pressure to not allow serious investigations into cases involving ruling party members, critics fear.

If a prosecutor is seen as “disobedient”, he could then be disciplined by the Judicial Inspection, which reports to the Justice Minister.

“It looks like a movie we’ve seen before, unfortunately,” the analysts said. “A general analysis reveals a certain trend … to take the prosecutors out of the control of the magistrates and the judicial power and place them under the control of the executive power,” they added.

Over 3,000 people protested on Sunday in front of the government building in Bucharest against the planned changes. Similar protests took place in cities such as Timisoara, Cluj-Napoca, Iasi, Brasov and Craiova.

Toader’s bill has been heavily criticized by prosecutors. Attorney General Augustin Lazar warned on Tuesday night, after a meeting with regional chief prosecutors summoned to discuss the proposals, that the bill puts the independence of the judicial system at risk. “We cannot allow such a provocation to the independence of the magistrates,” he said.

The bill has also been criticized by the powerful anti-Graft watchdog, the DNA, and by the organized crime and terrorism prosecutors in DIICOT.

The US embassy warned that the changes create “concern for the independence of the justice sector" in Romania and urged Romanian institutions "to work together to maintain the country's fight against corruption and to ensure the credibility of its institutions." The German embassy on Wednesday said it supported the US position.

The European Commission has meanwhile asked the Romanian government for more details, expressing concern that this may be a step back in the fight against corruption.

Romania is seen as one of the EU’s most corrupt states and Brussels keeps its justice system under special monitoring.

Prime Minister Mihai Tudose on Tuesday said he will take into account suggestions from both the magistrates and from the activists when the cabinet discusses the final draft of the bill.

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