Wednesday, January 7, 2009

New parliament vital in Romania corruption battle, minister says


Today @ 13:58 CET

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Romania's parliament will have to change its attitude towards corruption if the country is to succeed in cleaning up its judicial system, Romanian justice minister Catalin Predoiu has said.

Speaking to EUobserver, Mr Predoiu, in the post for just under a year, said that judicial reform and fighting high level corruption is "mainly in the hand of the magistrates and of the parliament."

Although it has been a member of the EU for two years, Romania remains under extra supervision by Brussels in the justice and home affairs area and has often been criticised by the European Commission for failing to sufficiently tackle corruption issues.

"We are expected to implement a number of important reforms in a period of financial difficulties. The time pressure is another challenge," said Mr Predoiu, alluding to the fact that EU commission was entering the last months of its term.

Mr Predoiu, a 40-years old lawyer specialising in privatisations, competition law and energy, aleady served as a justice minister in the last 10 months of the previous liberal government and was kept as an independent in the new coalition formed after the 30 November parliamentary elections.

The minister's focus on the parliament and the magistrates reflects the conclusions of Brussels' most recent monitoring report which called for an "unequivocal and renewed commitment across the political spectrum, the administration and the judiciary - to cleanse the system of corruption and to fully respect the rule of law."

"The key point will be the change in the attitude and policies of the Superior Council of Magistrates [the body which hires people, makes inspections and gives sanctions to judges and prosecutors] concerning the judicial inspection and the position of the parliament in the high level corruption cases," Mr Predoiu added.

He was referring to the actions of the previous parliament which refused to lift the immunity of former prime minister Adrian Nastase so he could be tried on corruption charges.

"Justice cannot be made in parliament," Mr Predoiu pointed out.

The minister expressed confidence that the government would support the fight against corruption, despite it being an awkward coalition of parties, with some influential figures under investigation for corruption.

Appointing the anti-corruption prosecutor

One of the tasks of the Romanian justice minister is to appoint the head of the National Anticorruption Directorate (NAD). It is currently led by Daniel Morar, but his mandate ran out in August 2008 and has been temporarily renewed until at most June 2009.

The issue is particularly politically sensitive since the NAD is the main body that investigates prominent politicians, including former ministers and a prime minister for graft.

All EU reports so far have found that the NAD showed a "continuously good track record of non-partisan investigation into high level corruption." By contrast, judges are considered to deliver "lenient sentences" while the parliament has been criticised for showing "insufficient awareness" of high level corruption.

In August, when different politicians called for Mr Morar to be replaced, Mr Predoiu decided to nominate one of his advisors, Monica Serbanescu, as head of NAD and Mr Morar as her deputy or as a Romanian envoy to the EU on justice matters. Mr Morar declined both offers and the president rejected Mr Predoiu's nomination.

Asked if he still has reserves concerning Mr Morar, the minister replied that he did not question the prosecutor's "professional qualities and his contribution in the fight against corruption." The current context was different and any decision would aim at "supporting the fight against corruption" and the lifting of the EU monitoring, Mr Predoiu said.

Threat of funds freeze

In 2008, Romania managed to avoid the massive EU funds freeze that was applied to Bulgaria due to fraud and corruption with pre-accession funds.

Yet NAD statistics show that the number of penal cases with EU funds is on the rise, indicating that a funds freeze is not out of the question in 2009.

In the first half of 2008 alone, the total loss of EU funds in the 22 cases sent to court by the anti-corruption prosecutors ran to € 1.9 million, more than the total loss of similar cases registered one year before (€1.5 million), say NAD.

The use of false or incorrect documents in order to obtain money through the EU's PHARE or SAPARD aid programmes was the most common fraud, says the agency.

Of the 70 files sent to court during 2004 and the first half of 2008, judges have issued final sentences for 11 people in nine files. No one has been acquitted.

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