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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.”

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.

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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coronavirus

Britain pressed to follow French and German lockdowns as COVID rates surge

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Britain resisted pressure on Thursday (29 October) to impose a second nationwide lockdown after France and Germany ordered sweeping restrictions on social life to contain a surge in coronavirus infections that has pushed health services to their limits, write and .

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has so far tried to avoid a nationwide lockdown, opting instead for a tiered system of local controls intended to tighten measures in affected regions while leaving others less restricted.

A new study by Imperial College in London underlined the dire situation facing Britain, the country with the largest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe, showing cases in England doubling every nine days.

Steven Riley, the author of the study, said the government should decide quickly if it wanted to follow France and Germany.

“And sooner is better than later for these,” Riley, a professor of infectious disease dynamics, told the BBC.

However Housing Minister Robert Jenrick said he did not think it was inevitable that the UK would follow France and Germany in imposing nationwide restrictions.

“The judgement of the government today is that a blanket national lockdown is not appropriate, would do more harm than good,” he told Times Radio.

Europe’s economies were plunged into their deepest recession on record by the blanket lockdowns imposed at the start of the crisis in March and April and the latest restrictions have snuffed out the faint signs of recovery seen over the summer.

Financial markets steadied somewhat on Thursday after a brutal selloff a day before as the prospect of a double dip recession came ever more clearly into view.

Governments have been desperate to avoid a repeat of the spring lockdowns but have been forced to move by the speed of new infections and a steadily increasing mortality rate across the continent.

While the French and German lockdowns will leave schools and most businesses open, they severely restrict social life by closing bars, restaurants, cinemas and the like and impose strict limits on people’s movements.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who addressed parliament on Thursday, said her government had moved quickly to prevent intensive care facilities being overwhelmed.

“We are in a dramatic situation at the start of the cold season. It affects us all, without exception,” Merkel told the Bundestag lower house of parliament, adding new restrictions to reduce social contact were “necessary and proportionate”.

However she warned of difficult months ahead and said: “The winter will be hard.”

After heavy criticism of a lack of coordination and planning in the initial phase of the crisis, European Union leaders aim to make progress on common testing and vaccination strategies at a video conference on Thursday.

The latest surge in new cases has put Europe back at the centre of the global pandemic, which has so far seen more than 44 million infections and 1.1 million deaths worldwide.

According to figures from the World Health Organization this week, the region accounted for almost half of new global infections in the previous seven days.

The United States has also seen a surge in new coronavirus cases in the run up to next week’s presidential election, with more than 80,000 new cases and 1,000 deaths reported on Wednesday.

By contrast, many Asian countries have begun to relax controls as the disease has been brought under control, with Singapore announcing it would ease restrictions for visitors from mainland China and the Australian state of Victoria.

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EU

Commission approves prolongation of the Polish resolution scheme for cooperative and small commercial banks

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The European Commission has approved, under EU state aid rules, the prolongation of the Polish resolution scheme for twelve months until 29 October 2021. The scheme was initially approved in December 2016. It has been prolonged four times, last time in April 2020. This fifth prolongation does not introduce any changes to the previous scheme. The measure will continue to be available for cooperative banks and small commercial banks with total assets below €3 billion, only if they are placed in resolution by the competent national authorities.

The objective of the scheme is to facilitate the work of the Polish resolution authorities, should a concrete case and need arise for it. The Commission found the prolongation of the scheme to be in line with EU state aid rules, in particular the 2013 Banking Communication and EU banking rules. More information will be available on the Commission's competition website in the case register under the case SA.58389 once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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Commission approves €7.7 million Greek scheme to support cultural activities in the Municipality of Athens in context of coronavirus outbreak

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The European Commission has approved a €7.7 million Greek scheme to support micro and small companies active in the cultural sector in the Municipality of Athens in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The measure was approved under the state aid Temporary Framework. The public support will take the form of direct grants and it will be co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund. A list of costs incurred by these companies in 2019 will be taken as a reference point to calculate the aid amount per undertaking, which may be between €10,000 and €200,000.

The purpose of the measure is to mitigate the sudden liquidity shortages that these companies are facing due to the measures that the Greek government had to impose to limit the spread of the virus and to ensure continuity of their economic activity. The measure will help companies organise cultural events that promote the cultural assets of the city of Athens. The Commission found that the Greek measure is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework.

In particular, the support (i) will not exceed €800,000 per company as provided by the Temporary Framework; and (ii) will be granted no later than 30 June 2021. The Commission concluded that the scheme 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 of 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.59033 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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