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#Romania's 'results' on anti-corruption come at a high cost to human rights: The pursuit of Alina Bica

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IMG_1718A CVM (Co-operation and Verification Mechanism) report released by the European Commission at the end of January told us that Romania is “getting results” in its campaign against corruption. 

But one woman’s story illustrates the very high cost of these results in terms of human rights violations. Alina Bica (pictured), the then Chief Prosecutor for organised crime, was herself seized by Romania’s DNA (National Anti-Corruption Directorate) in a dramatic arrest on 20 November 2014.

“It was like a movie”, recalls Bica, “I was traveling in my official car.  Three cars blocked mine.  They asked me if I had a lawyer.  I explained I was not a suspect.  They said: 'Not yet.  But you soon will be.' I was sure then that bad things were about to happen.”

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Bica was right.  Bad things were indeed about to happen.  In Romania, if you wish to arrest a Prosecutor, you must seek permission from the Supreme Council of Magistrates.   They refused in Bica’s case.  So within 24 hours, Bica says Laura Codruta Kovesi, the head of the DNA, made a personal visit to the Supreme Council to persuade them.  None of the charges faced by Alina Bica, 42,  has yet come to trial, let alone reached a conviction, but she has already spent over eight months inside jail.  She was not detained at the usual place for pre-trial detention in Bucharest.

Instead she was transferred to a more unpleasant jail where Bica says about 50% of prisoners were there because of her prosecutions.  The rationale for this detention is the country’s use of ‘preventive arrest’ to imprison certain high-level suspects accused of white-collar crimes on grounds of stopping them from committing similar alleged offenses in future.  Patrick Basham of the Democracy Institute in London and Washington describes this kind of preventive arrest as “particularly Orwellian”.    Basham also points to that fact that in Romania it is routine for family members to face accusations as additional leverage for prosecutors.

This happened to Alina Bica.  Her husband, who works in agriculture, was accused of €16,000 worth of tax evasion.  The accusations came to nothing.  Neither the fiscal authorities nor anyone else ever filed a complaint against Bica’s husband for this.   But Bica says prosecutors deliberately misled the media into thinking that the accusations were about seven million worth of tax evasion and predictable headlines ensued.  The accusations may have led nowhere but the reputational damage was done.

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Bica’s lawyer, Laura Vicol, was also arrested and they believe that was because of her television appearances supporting her client.  Bica says:  “It feels like the 1950s when the communists came.  You get called an enemy of the state, you get put in the truck… they damage your family.”

The charges against Bica include ‘abuse of power’, an offence that does not really exist in other countries.  Bica says she was conducting a routine review of cases.  In the specific case the charges referred to, the allegations against a suspect were over eight years old.  Bica told her Prosecutor to either start proceedings or throw the case out.  She explains this was a normal position for her to take, as in her view that is long enough for a case to be hanging over someone without proceedings being brought.  The accusation against her is that she received 17,000 Euros in return for closing the file.

This is an accusation Bica finds both astonishing and insulting: “My career has been my life.  For 18 years I worked without blemish or suspicion.  How do they claim that overnight an honorable person turned corrupt?  I am so proud of my achievements in my work and the great effort that took.  From my studies at the Sorbonne and training in the US – all to be good at my job.  I had dreams to make my country better.

"I did things like go to the Oracle Convention to get the first private server.  I got us the same one the fiscal authorities have in Texas.  I tried to get our unit more resources.  It was unfair that although we were tackling major issues like human trafficking, drugs and even nuclear smuggling, we got less money than the DNA who just deal with lobbying and bribery.  I was always striving to do the best job I could.  Do they really think I would throw all of that away for €16,000 Euros?  And if I was going to tarnish my very clean record, don’t they think I might have gone for a bigger fish?  I am not corrupt and I never will be.  But if I had wanted to be corrupt, surely I could have gone for something bigger. These accusations are not logical.”

So where does Bica believe this attack came from?  When we met, she was still puzzling it out.  She remembered requests from Lieutenant General Florian Coldea, the head of Romanian intelligence services. “He used to call me and make demands that I always refused.  For example he would make a demand that a specific person be arrested in the coming August.  When I would refuse, telling him there was not enough evidence, he would respond by saying: “You are not right for the position you are in.  You should change or you will not end well.”  She also wondered if the DNA and intelligence services felt she was a threat to them while she was in her position as Prosecutor at her anti-mafia unit: “Maybe they wanted to weaken my unit, leave the troops without a General?  Also, I was starting some interesting cases – maybe that was it.”

Just one week ago, Bica found her answer.  It turns out that in the autumn of 2012 she opened a case against Sergiu Lascu of Transgaz.  At the time, there was nothing unusual about that.  But Mr Lascu is the brother of Laura Codruta Kovesi, the head of the DNA and the woman behind Bica’s own 2014 arrest.  Back in 2012, Bica did not know of the link between Mr Lascu and her opposite number over at the DNA. She did not know she had opened a case against Kovesi’s brother.  It is hard not to see revenge as a motive for the DNA’s pursuit of Bica.

How has this news affected Bica? “Well, I suppose I now at least have an explanation about why I have been attacked in this way.  But it doesn’t help me much,” she adds, ruefully.  Would she have acted differently if she had known she was opening a case against Kovesi’s brother?  “No.  I was doing my job.  I would still have had to open that case. But maybe I could have informed the General Prosecutor of the Republic about this situation or prepared a report showing that the attitude of Ms Kovesi on this was not correct procedurally speaking.”  How does Bica feel about her chances when the case comes to trial?  “I know the DNA does not have evidence against me.  I want and need a fair trial.  But I do not have faith that I will get that.  The intelligence services have infiltrated the courts so I cannot rely on getting a Judge who will give me a fair hearing and judge my case independently.”

It seems Bica’s fears that she cannot get a fair trial are not unfounded.  Judge Dana Girbovan of the National Judges Association in Romania wrote to President Juncker of the European Commission to express serious concern that there are undercover Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) agents among the magistrates, which is of course prohibited by Romanian law.  Judge Girbovan also drew President Juncker’s attention to the fact that the head of the SRI Legal Directorate, General Dumitru Dumbrava, stated the courts of law were a “tactical field” for the SRI and that “currently we keep our interest/attention until a final decision is made in each case”.

This certainly echoes General Lieutenant Coldea’s alleged threats to Bica that she “will not end well”.  Patrick Basham believes that Romania’s anti-corruption campaign “has rapidly metastasized into an illiberal crusade.”

It is certainly to be hoped that the next CVM report from the European Commission will assess Romania’s progress not only the sheer volume of cases the DNA can bring, but also whether Romania is honoring the human rights guaranteed by the European Convention and the international treaties that Romania has signed.

Further reading - Romania's Anti-corruption Mania by Patrick Basham in the New York Times.

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Belgium

Commission approves €45 million Belgian scheme to support companies affected by the coronavirus outbreak

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The European Commission has approved a €45 million Belgian scheme to support companies active in the Brussels-Capital region affected by the coronavirus outbreak and the restrictive measures that the Belgian government had to implement to limit the spread of the virus. The public support was approved under the State Aid Temporary Framework. Under the scheme, which goes under the name 'la prime Relance', the aid will take the form of direct grants. Eligible beneficiaries are companies of all sizes active in the following sectors: nightclubs, restaurants and cafés (‘ReCa') and some of their suppliers, events, culture, tourism, sport and passenger transport. In order to be eligible, companies must have been registered in the Central Bank for Enterprises (‘la Banque-Carrefour des Enterprises' ) by 31 December 2020. The Commission found that the Belgian scheme is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, the support (i) will not exceed €1.8 million per company; and (ii) will be granted no later than 31 December 2021.

The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. On this basis, the Commission approved the measure under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.64775 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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European Commission

Macro-financial assistance: EU disburses €125 million to Bosnia and Herzegovina and €50 million to the Republic of Moldova

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The European Commission, on behalf of the EU, has carried out another round of disbursements under the €3 billion macro-financial assistance package for ten enlargement and neighbourhood partners. The programme is a concrete demonstration of the EU's solidarity with its partners to help respond to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commission has disbursed €125 million to Bosnia and Herzegovina and €50 million to the Republic of Moldova. This support is provided through loans at very favourable rates. With these disbursements, the EU has successfully completed five out of the 10 MFA programmes in the €3 billion COVID-19 MFA package, and disbursed the first tranches to all partners. The Commission continues to work closely with the rest of its MFA partners on the timely implementation of the agreed policy programmes. 

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European Commission

NextGenerationEU: European Commission endorses Finland's €2.1 billion recovery and resilience plan

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The European Commission has adopted a positive assessment of Finland's recovery and resilience plan. This is an important step towards the EU disbursing €2.1 billion in grants to Finland under the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). The financing provided by the RRF will support the implementation of the crucial investment and reform measures outlined in Finland's recovery and resilience plan. It will play a significant role in enabling Finland to emerge stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The RRF is the key instrument at the heart of NextGenerationEU which will provide up to €800bn (in current prices) to support investments and reforms across the EU. The Finnish plan forms part of an unprecedented coordinated EU response to the COVID-19 crisis, to address common European challenges by embracing the green and digital transitions, to strengthen economic and social resilience and the cohesion of the Single Market.

The Commission assessed Finland's plan based on the criteria set out in the RRF Regulation. The Commission's analysis considered, in particular, whether the investments and reforms contained in Finland's plan support the green and digital transitions; contribute to effectively addressing challenges identified in the European Semester; and strengthen its growth potential, job creation and economic and social resilience.

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Securing Finland's green and digital transitions  

The Commission's assessment finds that Finland's plan devotes 50% of the plan's total allocation on measures that support climate objectives. Finland has announced an ambitious target for achieving carbon neutrality by 2035. The reforms and investments included in the plan will make an important contribution to Finland achieving this objective. The plan addresses each of the highest emitting sectors in turn, namely energy, housing, industry and transport. It includes reforms to phase out the use of coal in energy production, changes to taxation to favour cleaner technologies, and a reform of the Waste Act with increased targets for recycling and reuse. On the investment side, the plan will finance clean energy technologies and related infrastructure, industry decarbonisation, the replacement of oil boilers with low- or zero-carbon heating systems and private and public charging points for electric cars.

The Commission's assessment finds that Finland's plan devotes 27% of its total allocation on measures that support the digital transition. The plan includes measures to improve high-speed internet connectivity, particularly in rural areas, support the digitalisation of businesses and the public sector, enhance digital skills of the workforce and support the development of key technologies such as artificial intelligence, 6G and microelectronics.

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Reinforcing Finland's economic and social resilience

The Commission considers that Finland's plan includes an extensive set of mutually reinforcing reforms and investments that contribute to effectively addressing the economic and social challenges outlined in the country-specific recommendations addressed to Finland in recent years.

It contains a broad set of reform measures to raise the employment rate and strengthen the functioning of the labour market, ranging from the transformation of Public Employment Services to improving and facilitating access to social and healthcare services. The plan includes specific measures to provide integration support for young people and people with partial work-capacity. The plan also includes measures to strengthen the effective supervision and enforcement of Finland's anti-money laundering framework.

The plan represents a comprehensive and balanced response to the economic and social situation of Finland, thereby contributing appropriately to all six pillars referred to in the RRF Regulation.

Supporting flagship investment and reform projects

Finland's plan proposes projects in all seven European flagship areas. These are specific investment projects, which address issues that are common to all Member States in areas that create jobs and growth and are needed for the green and digital transition. For instance, Finland has proposed to provide €161 million to investments in new energy technologies and €60m toward the decarbonisation of industrial processes to support the green transition. To support the digital transition, the plan will invest €50m in the rollout of rapid broadband services and €93m to support the development of digital skills as part of continuous learning and labour market reforms.

The Commission's assessment finds that none of the measures included in the plan significantly harms the environment, in line with the requirements laid out in the RRF Regulation.

The Commission considers that the controls systems put in place by Finland are adequate to protect the financial interests of the Union. The plan provides sufficient details on how national authorities will prevent, detect and correct instances of conflict of interest, corruption and fraud relating to the use of funds.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “I am delighted to present the European Commission's endorsement of Finland's €2.1bn recovery and resilience plan. I am proud that NextGenerationEU will make a significant contribution to support Finland's goal to become carbon neutral by 2035. The plan will also help bolster Finland's reputation for excellence in innovation with support for the development of new technologies in areas such as artificial intelligence, 6G and microelectronics. We will stand with Finland throughout the plan's implementation to ensure that the reforms and investments it contains are fully delivered.”

An Economy that Works for People Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said: “The Commission has today given its green light for Finland's recovery and resilience plan, which will set the country on a greener and more digital path as it recovers from the crisis. This plan will help Finland to meet its ambitious carbon-neutrality target by 2035, with reforms and investments that will reduce carbon emissions from energy production, housing, industry and transport. We welcome its focus on high-speed connectivity, particularly for sparsely populated areas to help maintain their economic activity, and on digitalising smaller businesses and the public sector. With reforms to boost employment and strengthen the labour market, Finland's plan will promote smart, sustainable and inclusive growth once it is put into effect.”

Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said: “Finland's €2.1bn recovery and resilience plan is strongly focused on the green transition. No less than 50% of its total allocation is set to support climate objectives, helping to speed the country towards its ambitious target of carbon neutrality by 2035. The plan also contains an array of measures to boost Finland's already strong digital competitiveness. I particularly welcome the Finnish plan's strong social elements, with measures to raise the employment rate, tackle youth unemployment and facilitate access to social and healthcare services.”

Next steps

The Commission has today adopted a proposal for a decision to provide €2.1bn in grants to Finland under the RRF. The Council will now have, as a rule, four weeks to adopt the Commission's proposal.

The Council's approval of the plan would allow for the disbursement of €271m to Finland in pre-financing. This represents 13% of the total allocated amount for Finland.

The Commission will authorise further disbursements based on the satisfactory fulfilment of the milestones and targets outlined in the recovery and resilience plan, reflecting progress on the implementation of the investments and reforms. 

More information

Questions and Answers: European Commission endorses Finland's €2.1bn recovery and resilience plan

Factsheet on Finland's recovery and resilience plan

Proposal for a Council Implementing Decision on the approval of the assessment of the recovery and resilience plan for Finland

Annex to the Proposal for a Council Implementing Decision on the approval of the assessment of the recovery and resilience plan for Finland

Staff-working document accompanying the proposal for a Council Implementing Decision

Recovery and Resilience Facility

Recovery and Resilience Facility: Questions and Answers

Recovery and Resilience Facility Regulation

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