Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Eubusiness: Young Romanian magistrates hopeful of change

(BUCHAREST) - They are the new judges and lawyers of Romania, a country plagued by graft and under EU surveillance because of slow justice reforms.

But for this new generation, the verdict from Brussels represents not a threat, as portrayed by some Romanian politicians, but a challenge.

With the European Commission expected this week to publish its interim report analysing the progress of Bucharest and Sofia in fighting corruption, they say the critical eye of Brussels is crucial.

"Looking at our communist past, we have come a long way as far as justice is concerned," 24-year-old final year law student Gabriela Olariu told AFP.

The 45 years of communist dictatorship "killed the idea that ordinary people could get justice" in Romania, said the soon-to-be lawyer.

But since the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu 20 years ago, she said, "a lot of beneficial structural changes have been made" thanks to the European Union integration process.

But those changes needed to be enforced, she said, and that will be down to her generation of legal professionals.

Another young lawyer, Anca Cernat, agreed.

Their generation could make a difference, she said, if they could just rid themselves of the communist-era mentality that "things are like this" and could not change.

"I feel deep inside that things will be better in Romania," she added.

Anca, Gabriela and another 16 young judges, prosecutors and lawyers have been selected to follow a new training programme called Leaders for Justice, designed by Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Its main aim is "to create a pool of young individuals who understand the importance of values and integrity and who are ready to take the lead in promoting rule of law principles through their work".

A demanding selection process focused on the candidates' ethical values said Corina Rebegea, who led the process.

"We want to support the Romanian elite of tomorrow," said Stefanie Ricarda Roos, director of the foundation's Rule of Law Programme South East Europe.

And by the elite she is referring not to people who enjoy a privileged position in society, but to those individuals who were qualified -- and motivated -- to serve the public interest, she added.

According to pollsters, there is still a lot of work to be done to win public confidence in the system: recent surveys suggested that only 20 to 26 percent of Romanians trust their justice system.

In 2009, six judges and prosecutors were found guilty of taking bribes ranging from 100 to 45,000 euros.

"Corruption of judges is not as widespread as people believe," Daniel Mitrauta, a young criminal court judge from Iasi, in the north, told AFP.

"But I have encountered a lot of formalism which is often delaying trials."

He hoped the programme would give him the tools -- and the courage -- to make things change.

Law student Olariu expected the training to help her deal with potentially tricky real-life situations.

"What can I do if I am a judge and the president of my court is putting pressure on me to hand out a certain verdict?"

Some of the more reformist-minded judges feel that the old guard still needs to be confronted.

In January, Florica Bejinariu, a judge accused of having collaborated with the former communist secret police Securitate, was elected as head of the Supreme Magistrate's Council (CSM).

Bejinariu was elected by other magistrates from the CSM, but reformist judges denounced the move as "the most severe blow" to justice in Romania since the communist era more than two decades ago.

Some of these same reformist magistrates will be among those teaching their young colleagues at the Adenauer Foundation's programme.

"We wanted to show that there are excellent people who work in the judiciary system in Romania. They can be role models," the foundation's Ricarda Roos said.

The hope is that this new generation of jurists, fluent in English and internationally oriented, will remain sufficiently motivated to stay in Romania rather than taking their skills abroad.

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