BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania’s fight against graft could run into trouble when parliament and the Constitutional Court vote this month on changes to laws used in corruption cases, the country’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor said.
The Romanian legal system is under special monitoring and the European Commission has praised magistrates’ efforts. Corruption prosecuting agency DNA has investigated lawmakers, ministers, mayors, magistrates and businessmen in recent years, in a crackdown that has exposed widespread graft.
But Brussels has also noted Romania’s parliament has a patchy record of approving prosecutor requests to investigate or detain lawmakers. It also has a history of trying to pass legislation to limit magistrates’ abilities.
In May, the lower house is expected to vote on whether to ban prosecutors from seizing the documents, phones or computers of lawyers. Such a change would protect any of their clients who might be under investigation.
Separately, the Constitutional Court meets on May 24 to discuss decriminalizing abuse of public office, a common offense in DNA investigations.
“We are definitely concerned about ... the two decisions,” DNA chief prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi told Reuters in an interview.
“These repeated attempts to change legislation are putting pressure on the judiciary. These initiatives often show up unexpectedly, without being debated, without telling the public.”
If the top court removes abuse of office from the list of offences, a third of the cases DNA sent to trial in 2015 would automatically lead to acquittals, Kovesi said. This year, DNA is investigating over 860 cases of public procurement fraud, generally committed through abuse of office.
Decriminalizing the offense would also make it impossible for Romania to recover hundreds of millions of euros in damages.
“Romanian citizens will be primarily affected by this because all these damages would no longer be recovered and such criminal behavior would no longer be investigated,” Kovesi said.
Attempts to weaken magistrates’ powers have only grown as the number of corruption investigations has risen.
“Over the last two years, we have witnessed a real attack against the justice system overall, not just against anti-corruption prosecutors,” Kovesi said.
“These initiatives ... have multiplied especially in regards to the fight against corruption, because of DNA investigations, but also because of the rulings judges made in these cases.”
Some legal initiatives currently under debate in parliament also aim to limit the abilities of the ANI agency, set up to monitor elected officials’ wealth and conflicts of interest.
DNA investigations have revealed conflicts of interest, abuse of power, fraud and the award of state contracts in exchange for bribes. The agency sent 1,250 people to trial on corruption charges last year, its highest number yet. It has a 92 percent conviction rate.
But the crackdown alone cannot eradicate corruption, Kovesi said, urging better prevention measures.
“When corruption occurs in a public institution, it is important to identify the vulnerabilities after and modify procedures. Arresting and investigating 100 doctors would not by itself help eliminate hospital infections.”
Reporting by Luiza Ilie, editing by Larry King