Friday, December 10, 2010

Romanians see slow progress on justice

09 December 2010

(BUCHAREST) - Riddled with corruption and struggling for years with interference by politicians, Romania's legal system is on the mend but will need more monitoring by the EU to fully recover, experts told AFP.

"If we look where we started and where we are now, there is certainly progress," former Romanian justice minister Monica Macovei, a leading figure in fighting corruption, told AFP four years after her country joined the European Union.

Bucharest's accession to the bloc was accompanied by a unique monitoring mechanism to help the former communist country reform its legal system and fight corruption.

The challenge was huge as Romania suffered decades of authoritarian rule under a fascist regime in the 1940s and the iron hand of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

"Since 2004, when pressure from the EU intensified, progress has been significant", judge Cristi Danilet, a long-time promoter of integrity in the justice system, stressed.

A "convincing track record" of the anti-corruption prosecutor's office (DNA) in investigating high-profile cases involving politicians is one of the major achievements, according to the EU.

The judiciary is now independent from the government.

"However, serious problems persist, especially as far as the cleanup of the judicial system is concerned," Macovei stressed.

A case last week illustrated the mixed record of the recovery after an appeal court judge in the northern city of Iasi was charged with taking bribes of several thousand euros (dollars) to hand down a judgement in favour of a man divorcing his wife.

The latter seized the anti-corruption prosecutor's office which acted swiftly and had the judge detained.

But the ex-wife claimed she previously turned in vain to the superior council of magistracy (CSM), the body charged with guaranteeing the legal system's independence and integrity.

The CSM came under fire in March when 350 Romanian magistrates accused it of failing to act promptly after two high court judges were charged with influence-peddling in a corruption scandal involving a senator.

"The reluctance to impose sanctions sends the wrong signal to society. It gives the idea that those who are applying the law are more lenient when it comes to themselves," said Corina Rebegea from the Rule of Law programme of conservative German think tank Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

The election of reformist magistrates, though still a minority, in the new CSM has given some hope to non-government organisations defending the rule of law.

Corruption cases involving politicians, some in prominent party positions, that go unprocessed for up to four years at the high court are also worrying, underlined Laura Stefan, anti-corruption coordinator at the Romania academic society (SAR).

"In other cases, people are convicted quickly. This affects the confidence in the justice system because people find that they are not equal before the law", Macovei said.

A new set of laws is expected to limit delaying tactics criticized by the EU.

However, Danilet said, the European Union should continue its monitoring "for some time because we need external pressure for reforms to proceed".

Countries like France and the Netherlands say they could link Romania's entry into the Schengen visa-free zone to progress on justice reforms, but the SAR's Stefan does not agree.

"I think we should enter Schengen if we meet the required technical criteria. What is more important than Schengen for the rule of law is the continuation of the European monitoring," she said.

Disliked by some politicians, this mechanism helped save the Integrity agency, a body set up to verify assets and police potential conflicts of interest involving politicians and civil servants when lawmakers wanted to weaken it.

Romania's Justice Minister Catalin Predoiu stated clearly: "We are still far from fulfilling all our objectives. EU surveillance will be lifted when judgements will be rendered in cases of high-profile corruption and when integrity issues will be resolved by the CSM."

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