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A window of opportunity for corrupt justice system in #Romania?

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At the end of May, the Constitutional Court of Romania ruled that President Iohannis must dismiss the country’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Laura Kovesi, after allegations of her involvement in multiple violations of the rule of law. As the Constitutional Court’s rulings are binding, a glimmer of hope has emerged, offering a golden opportunity to improve Romania’s currently abysmal corruption record, writes  Lea Perekrests of Human Rights Without Frontiers.

The call for Kovesi’s dismissal reached a crescendo in February 2018, when the Justice Minister presented a 36-page report detailing illegal activities for which Kovesi is responsible. Justice Minister, Tudorel Toader concluded his presentation by summarizing that Kovesi is guilty of “excess of authority, discretionary behavior, defying the Parliament, challenging the Constitutional Court’s decisions and authority…[which are] acts and facts that are intolerable in a rule of law”.

Laura Kovesi: Unjust tactics for unworthy praise

Laura Kovesi, chief anti-corruption prosecutor

Since Laura Kovesi’s appointment as chief anti-corruption prosecutor, the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) has been able to flaunt impressive statistics to the European Commission; it has achieved a conviction rate of over 90%, and more asset freezes, arrests, and convictions than any other counterpart agency in the EU. While the European Commission has praised these numbers at their face value, they have failed to look deeper and recognize the numerous unlawful activities that prop these numbers up.

In order to achieve ‘praiseworthy’ success rates the DNA has abused institutional structures and employed questionable tactics, which have ultimately robbed Romanian citizens of their right to a fair trial.

Institutional links between the DNA, Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI), judicial branches, and judges themselves, have all been revealed over the past few years, bringing serious concern to the organization of institutional structures and their ability to provide fair trials.

For example, in 2015, an SRI leader had publically stated that the SRI remains involved in judicial proceedings until the final resolution of each case and stated that magistrates across the country need to be monitored. In the same year, the SRI was also involved in training over 1,000 judges across the country.

Foreign judges’ organisations, including the Paris-based Magistrates Association MEDEL (Magistrats europeens pour la Democratie et les Libertes) have reacted to these statements with great concern for the apparent lack of respect for basic human rights.

Worryingly, it has also been reported that the DNA and SRI have used questionable tactics, including unconstitutional phone tapping, the intimidation of judges, falsifying evidence, targeting suspects’ family members, and producing propaganda against suspects.

Bringing to light the severity and depth of these tactics, it was revealed in February 2018 that two top DNA prosecutors had been recorded faking evidence, planting evidence in people’s homes and cars, changing witness declarations, faking official documents, and blackmailing witnesses, all under the instruction of Laura Kovesi.

Currently, the SRI Secretary-General, Dumitru Dumbrava, is also facing calls to resign after media reports revealed that he was contacting and influencing judicial officials presiding over DNA cases via Facebook.

Impacts for Romania: A window of opportunity?

 The cases brought forth by the DNA under Laura Kovesi have shown a pattern of unlawful activity, including: failing to assume innocence,  unfair judicial processes, forced confessions, threat of indictments, and extended pre-trial detention periods.

The lengthy pre-trial detention periods are also of high concern given the deteriorating prison conditions and high rates of torture cases being presented to the ECtHR.

In 2017, Romania had the highest number of cases brought before the ECtHR than any other country in the EU. Twenty of the 69 cases involved the prohibition of torture or inhumane treatment, and twenty-six involved either a lack of effective investigation, the right to a fair trial, or the length of proceedings.

An overall deeply disturbing, neo-Ceausescu picture emerges when looking further behind the DNA’s success rates. At a moment when Romania is seeking to further integrate into the European Union, the necessity to investigate and reform is paramount. It would be negligent of the European Commission to turn a blind eye to the disturbing nature of Romania’s anti-corruption fight as it seeks to join the Euro and Schengen.

The Constitutional Court of Romania’s recent decision to require Kovesi’s removal opens a window of opportunity for the country to reform the corrupt institutions that are meant to safeguard the rights of Romanian citizens. It can allow the country to hit the reset button and enable a truly effective system for tackling corruption.

It is now in the hands of the Romanian government to reverse its current Kovesi-era path of unfair trials and unsafe convictions and to build institutions and leaders that can both guarantee Romanian’s their human rights and ensure corruption is tackled firmly but fairly.

[1] https://www.romania-insider.com/romanias-justice-minister-presents-report-anticorruption-department/

[2] https://www.neweurope.eu/article/corruption-romanias-anti-corruption-fight/

[3] https://eureporter.co/frontpage/2018/03/26/praise-for-romanian-crackdown-on-corruption-groundless/

[4] http://hrwf.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/21_03_Human-Rights-in-Romania_Systematic-violations-and-the-anti-corruption-efforts.pdf

[5] https://eutoday.net/news/politics/2017/romanias-secret-services-under-parliamentary-scrutiny

[6] http://bit.ly/2nkZ0dX

[7] https://www.neweurope.eu/article/corruption-romanias-anti-corruption-fight-laid-bare-world-see/ ; http://henryjacksonsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Romania-paper.pdf

[8] https://www.neweurope.eu/article/corruption-romanias-anti-corruption-fight-laid-bare-world-see/

[9] http://henryjacksonsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Romania-paper.pdf

[10] https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Stats_violation_2017_ENG.pdf

Czech Republic

NextGenerationEU: European Commission endorses Czechia's €7 billion recovery and resilience plan

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The European Commission has today (19 July) adopted a positive assessment of Czechia's recovery and resilience plan. This is an important step towards the EU disbursing €7 billion in grants under the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). This financing will support the implementation of the crucial investment and reform measures outlined in Czechia's recovery and resilience plan. It will play a key role in helping Czechia emerge stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The RRF is at the heart of NextGenerationEU which will provide €800bn (in current prices) to support investments and reforms across the EU. The Czech plan forms part of an unprecedented co-ordinated 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 Czechia's plan based on the criteria set out in the RRF Regulation. The Commission's analysis considered, in particular, whether the investments and reforms set out in Czechia'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.

Securing Czechia's green and digital transition  

The Commission's assessment of Czechia's plan finds that it devotes 42% of its total allocation to measures that support climate objectives. The plan includes investments in renewable energy, the modernisation of district heating distribution networks, the replacement of coal-fired boilers and improving the energy efficiency of residential and public buildings. The plan also includes measures for nature protection and water management as well as investment in sustainable mobility.

The Commission's assessment of Czechia's plan finds that it devotes 22% of its total allocation to measures that support the digital transition. The plan provides for investments in digital infrastructure, the digitalization of public administration, including the areas of health, justice and the administration of construction permits. It promotes the digitalisation of businesses and digital projects in the cultural and creative sectors. The plan also includes measures to improve digital skills at all levels, as part of the education system and through dedicated upskilling and reskilling programmes.

Reinforcing Czechia's economic and social resilience

The Commission considers that Czechia's plan effectively addresses all or a significant subset of the economic and social challenges outlined in the country-specific recommendations addressed to Czechia by the Council in the European Semester in 2019 and in 2020.

The plan provides for measures to tackle the need for investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, sustainable transport and digital infrastructure. Several measures aim at addressing the need to foster digital skills, improve the quality and inclusiveness of education, and to increase the availability of childcare facilities. The plan also provides for improving the business environment, mainly through extensive e-government measures, a reform of the procedures of granting construction permits and anti-corruption measures. Challenges in the area of R&D shall be improved by investment geared at strengthening public-private cooperation and financial and non-financial support to innovative firms.

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

Supporting flagship investments and reform projects

The Czech 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 twin transition. For instance, Czechia has proposed €1.4bn to support the energy efficiency renovation of buildings and €500 million to boost digital skills through education and investments in upskilling and reskilling programmes for the entire labour force.  

The Commission's assessment finds that no measure included in the plan does any significant harm to the environment, in line with the requirements laid out in the RRF Regulation.

The arrangements proposed in the recovery and resilience plan in relation to control systems are adequate to prevent, detect and correct corruption, fraud and conflicts of interests relating to the use of funds. The arrangements are also expected to effectively avoid double funding under that Regulation and other Union programmes. These control systems are complemented by additional audit and control measures contained in the Commission's proposal for a Council Implementing Decision as milestones. These milestones must be fulfilled before Czechia presents its first payment request to the Commission.

President Ursula von der Leyen said: “Today, the European Commission has decided to give its green light to Czechia's recovery and resilience plan. This plan will play a crucial role in supporting a shift towards a greener and more digital future for Czechia. Measures that improve energy efficiency, digitalize public administration and deter the misuse of public funds are exactly in line with the objectives of NextGenerationEU. I also welcome the strong emphasis the plan places on strengthening the resilience of Czechia's health-care system to prepare it for future challenges. We will stand with you every step of the way to ensure that the plan is fully implemented.

Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said: “Czechia's recovery and resilience plan will provide a strong boost to the country's efforts to get back its feet after the economic shock caused the pandemic. The €7bn in NextGenerationEU funds that will flow to Czechia over the next five years will support a wide-ranging programme of reforms and investments to build a more sustainable and competitive economy. They include very sizeable investments in building renovation, clean energy and sustainable mobility, as well as measures to boost digital infrastructure and skills and the digitalisation of public services. The business environment will benefit from the promotion of e-government and anti-corruption measures. The plan will also support improvements in healthcare, including reinforced cancer prevention and rehabilitation care.”

Next steps

The Commission has today adopted a proposal for a Council Implementing Decision to provide €7bn in grants to Czechia 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 €910m to Czechia in pre-financing. This represents 13% of the total amount allocated to Czechia.

An Economy that Works for People Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said: “This plan will put Czechia on the path to recovery and boost its economic growth as Europe gears up for the green and digital transitions. Czechia intends to invest in renewable energy and sustainable transport, while improving the energy efficiency of buildings. It aims to roll out greater digital connectivity across the country, promote digital education and skills, and digitalize many of its public services. And it places a welcome focus on improving the business environment and justice system, backed by measures to fight corruption and promote e-government – all in a balanced response to the Czech economic and social situation. Once put properly into practice, this plan will help to put Czechia on a sound footing for the future.”

The Commission will authorize further disbursements based on the satisfactory fulfilment of the milestones and targets outlined in the Council Implementing Decision, reflecting progress on the implementation of the investments and reforms. 

More information

Questions and answers: European Commission endorses Czechia's recovery and resilience plan

Recovery and Resilience Facility: Questions and answers

Factsheet on Czechia's recovery and resilience plan

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

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

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

Recovery and Resilience Facility

Recovery and Resilience Facility Regulation

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Belgium

Death toll rises to 170 in Germany and Belgium floods

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The death toll in devastating flooding in western Germany and Belgium rose to at least 170 on Saturday (17 July) after burst rivers and flash floods this week collapsed houses and ripped up roads and power lines, write Petra Wischgoll,
David Sahl, Matthias Inverardi in Duesseldorf, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt and Bart Meijer in Amsterdam.

Some 143 people died in the flooding in Germany's worst natural disaster in more than half a century. That included about 98 in the Ahrweiler district south of Cologne, according to police.

Hundreds of people were still missing or unreachable as several areas were inaccessible due to high water levels while communication in some places was still down.

Residents and business owners struggled to pick up the pieces in battered towns.

"Everything is completely destroyed. You don't recognise the scenery," said Michael Lang, owner of a wine shop in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in Ahrweiler, fighting back tears.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Erftstadt in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the disaster killed at least 45 people.

"We mourn with those that have lost friends, acquaintances, family members," he said. "Their fate is ripping our hearts apart."

Around 700 residents were evacuated late on Friday after a dam broke in the town of Wassenberg near Cologne, authorities said.

But Wassenberg mayor Marcel Maurer said water levels had been stabilising since the night. "It's too early to give the all-clear but we are cautiously optimistic," he said.

The Steinbachtal dam in western Germany, however, remained at risk of breaching, authorities said after some 4,500 people were evacuated from homes downstream.

Steinmeier said it would take weeks before the full damage, expected to require several billions of euros in reconstruction funds, could be assessed.

Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and the ruling CDU party's candidate in September's general election, said he would speak to Finance Minister Olaf Scholz in the coming days about financial support.

Chancellor Angela Merkel was expected to travel on Sunday to Rhineland Palatinate, the state that is home to the devastated village of Schuld.

Members of the Bundeswehr forces, surrounded by partially submerged cars, wade through the flood water following heavy rainfalls in Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany, July 17, 2021. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen
Austrian rescue team members use their boats as they go through an area affected by floods, following heavy rainfalls, in Pepinster, Belgium, July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

In Belgium, the death toll rose to 27, according to the national crisis centre, which is co-ordinating the relief operation there.

It added that 103 people were "missing or unreachable". Some were likely unreachable because they could not recharge mobile phones or were in hospital without identity papers, the centre said.

Over the past several days the floods, which have mostly hit the German states of Rhineland Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia and eastern Belgium, have cut off entire communities from power and communications.

RWE (RWEG.DE), Germany's largest power producer, said on Saturday its opencast mine in Inden and the Weisweiler coal-fired power plant were massively affected, adding that the plant was running at lower capacity after the situation stabilized.

In the southern Belgian provinces of Luxembourg and Namur, authorities rushed to supply drinking water to households.

Flood water levels slowly fell in the worst hit parts of Belgium, allowing residents to sort through damaged possessions. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited some areas on Saturday afternoon.

Belgian rail network operator Infrabel published plans of repairs to lines, some of which would be back in service only at the very end of August.

Emergency services in the Netherlands also remained on high alert as overflowing rivers threatened towns and villages throughout the southern province of Limburg.

Tens of thousands of residents in the region have been evacuated in the past two days, while soldiers, fire brigades and volunteers worked frantically throughout Friday night (16 July) to enforce dykes and prevent flooding.

The Dutch have so far escaped disaster on the scale of its neighbours, and as of Saturday morning no casualties had been reported.

Scientists have long said that climate change will lead to heavier downpours. But determining its role in these relentless rainfalls will take at least several weeks to research, scientists said on Friday.

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Czech Republic

NextGenerationEU: President von der Leyen in Czechia to present the Commission's assessment of the national recovery plan

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Today (19 July), Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) will be in Czechia to present the Commission's assessment on the national recovery and resilience plan under NextGenerationEU. On Monday morning, President von der Leyen will travel to Prague to meet Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, together with Vice-President Věra Jourová. She will also visit the Prague State Opera and the State Opera and National Museum, and discuss investments in energy efficiency. 

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