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Wiretapping, secret service control and dire prison conditions: Scrutiny of #Romania justice system as the country hosts the EU Summit




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Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, says Romania, which currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency, must make further efforts to fully reach European standards on the rule of law. Mr Juncker’s comments were directed at the political wrangling in Romania over the anti-corruption campaign. However, commentators observe that the problems with Romania’s justice system are far more wide-ranging, especially given the concerns which the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee raised over abuse of prisoners by staff, inter-prisoner violence and allegations of police ill-treatment, writes James Wilson.

Romania’s presidency of the EU, which began in January, has been undermined  by concerns over the country’s justice system. January saw revelations that the Romanian intelligence service, the SRI, specified in advance who should be targeted and prosecuted and even the sentences they should receive. These allegations came from Ovidiu Putura, the former Romanian judge and Ministry of Justice Secretary of State. It was also revealed that the SRI’s former General Dumitru Dumbrava had been seen in the Romanian courts, where it is alleged that he asked judges to pass certain decisions. Mr Putura also claimed that anyone in an important position in Romania was routinely wiretapped.

Concerns about Romania kept building, as the country’s Constitutional Court ruled, in a 6-3 vote, that secret protocols between prosecutors and the SRI were unconstitutional. These secret protocols between the General Prosecutor’s office and the intelligence services were signed between 2009 and 2016 and some have been declassified. The ruling on the protocols came just months after the European Commission acknowledged the secret protocol issue in its Romania CVM report. The CVM report is a measure faced by Bulgaria and Romania, due to concerns that their justice systems are far behind European Union standards). The very existence of the protocols undermines judicial independence and the separation of powers. The protocols are not limited to those ruled on in the Constitutional Court’s January decision: the array of protocols spans secret and illegal agreements between the SRI and many other agencies, including the Superior Council of Magistracy, the Judicial Inspection and the High Court of Cassation and Justice.

What do the protocols mean in practical terms?  The answer perhaps lies in the fact that around two thirds of Romanian judges have been investigated by the Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) over the past four years. The files against judges remain open and ongoing, meaning that the DNA and their partners in the intelligence services can exert pressure on the judiciary.  For obvious reasons, given Romania’s dark history under the Ceausescu era and the power held by the ‘Securitate’ at that time, Romania and its European neighbours find such power lodged in the hands of the SRI very concerning.

Romania’s poor human rights environment is evident in its dire record at the European Court of Human Rights.  A report written by Emily Barley, Lisi Biggs-Davison and Chris Alderton which was published by Due Process and CRCE, showed Romania to be by far the worst violator of human rights within the EU. Romania had a total of 272 violations of human rights found by the European Court of Human Rights from 2014 to 2017.  This means that Romania had over 100 more judgements against it than the next worst country in the EU. Only Russia and Turkey were worse offenders for violating the right to a fair trial among the 47 Council of Europe members.

Perhaps the most striking of the problems in Romania’s justice system is the appalling condition of its prisons. It is around 30 years since the world looked in horror at the conditions in Romania’s orphanages. It seems a similar scandal is building as we learn more about the similarly grim current conditions in the country’s prisons. The Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee’s report states that a considerable number of allegations of physical ill-treatment of prisoners by prison staff were received, notably by members of the masked intervention groups based in four of the five prisons visited. The situation was particularly alarming at Galaţi Prison where a climate of fear was evident. The report details several allegations of ill-treatment by staff corroborated by medical evidence, and raises serious concerns over the lack of recording of injuries by the health care service and failures to investigate allegations effectively. In the light of the grave findings, the CPT once again questions the raison d’être and modus operandi of the masked intervention groups and calls on the Romanian authorities to reconsider their continued existence. Instead, it proposes that a system of first-responders should be established, combined with an increase in the staffing complement on the maximum-security regime wings and the adoption of a dynamic security approach. The report also documents several cases of severe beatings and sexual abuse by prisoners in their cells, notably among young adult prisoners at Bacău Prison.


A Brussels-based journalist reporting on the Sibiu summit, speaking privately, said: “There has been serious unease in Brussels about Romania’s presidency of the EU.  They clearly have not been deemed fit to have the CVM controls lifted and report after report finds their justice system far below European standards. They just do not have the credibility to take a serious leading role in Europe.”

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