Legally corrupt: Romanian politicians chase ‘super-immunity’

The effort of an anti-corruption protest movement has been undermined by a draft law to grant immunity to politicians

A disillusioned Romanian populace have taken to the streets to protest against the latest government measures to gain special immunity [AFP]

The Romanian parliament’s lower house recently considered a draft law containing multiple amendments to the Penal Code, which would grant “super-immunity” to parliamentarians and the president, as they would be taken out of the “public servant” category stipulated in the Code. This would prevent them from being investigated by the National Anti-Corruption Agency (DNA) and the National Integrity Agency (ANI), allowing them to get away with multiple types of illegal activities, including corruption. At the same time, if adopted, the amendments would exclude administrative acts from the “Conflict of Interest” area, simply meaning that Romanian politicians can no longer be accused of conflicts of interest.

In addition to the amendments, the Romanian parliament’s agenda included an amnesty and pardon law which has also been largely challenged because it would allow amnesty for prison sentences of up to 6 years and full pardon for prison sentences of up to 7 years, excluding only individuals sentenced for acts of violence or corruption.

For these legislative initiatives, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) declared the Romanian Parliament its 2013 “Person of the Year”, for its tireless work to promote crime and corruption and for trying to evade the law through legal channels. The editor of the OCCRP declared that, “The Romanian Parliament has taken corruption to a new level in Europe by making it legal. Why now? It’s probably because they know what they’ve been doing and it’s not good.” 

Although initially both draft laws were supposed to be voted on in mid-December, parliament postponed the vote to February 2014, allegedly to enable public debate.

Widespread protests

On December 15, 2013, thousands of Romanians took to the streets of Bucharest to protest these new legislative measures, with more people joining throughout the country. A large number of police forces were deployed using violence and tear gas against the protesters who were demanding the resignation of the government and the prime minister.

As a result of the violence, several demonstrators had to be rushed to the hospital with injuries. While there were a small number of violent agitators among the protesters, the police should have identified those particular people, instead of trying to end the entire protest through aggression. The protests continued on the weekend of December 21, marking 24 years since the 1989 Romanian Revolution that overthrew Romania’s communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.

Apart from the public demonstrations against the Penal Code amendments, these legislative changes have been amply criticised by diplomats and politicians both within Romania and abroad. Romanian President Traian Basescu has announced that he would not sign the bill into law and that the intended amendments have to be discussed in parliament before being approved. Monica Macovei, a liberal Euro-parliamentarian, stressed that modifying the conflict of interest offence is a blow to Romania’s anticorruption efforts. She also called on Prime Minister Victor Ponta to resign [Ro] for enabling political theft and corruption through the Penal Code’s modifications.

Romania’s recent legislative measures represent an attack on the rule of law, and would afford an already widely corrupt political class even more power to pursue personal interests with impunity, instead of catering to the Romanian public.

International condemnation

The EU also promptly reacted to the draft law. The EU Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship expressed concerns over the impact of the new amendments on Romania’s efforts to fight corruption, while specifying that the EU will review Romania’s recent measures in January 2014. A European Commission spokesperson emphasised that his institution believes that “all officials in legislative, executive, administrative [Ro] or juridical positions, must abide by the corruption and conflict of interest rules”. He added that, for the Commission, citizens’ equality before the law is a very important [Ro] principle.

The fundamental problem is that the amendments passed reflect a reality in Romania, as politicians are de facto immune from investigation and prosecution. Transparency International ranked Romania the third most corrupt country in the EU, surpassed only by Greece and Bulgaria. Yet, the number of cases that the DNA is pursuing and resolving remains extremely limited. In 2013, DNA only solved [Ro] 1,396 out of 5,961 cases.

Moreover, most of the agency’s investigations do not focus on senior politicians, but local and regional officials. The highest-ranking political figure that was convicted [Ro] was Romania’s former social-democratic Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, who in 2012, was on trial for illegally raising $2.1m for his 2004 presidential campaign. He was sentenced [Ro] to two years in prison, but was conditionally released after nine months, despite the DNA prosecutor’s appeal against his discharge. While Nastase was the first high-ranking Romanian official to be convicted in Eastern Europe’s post-communist history, his condemnation was compromised by his rapid release.

Disillusioned public

The law containing the Penal Code amendments was passed in a period of broad protests, marking increasing Romanian disenchantment with the political class. Since September 2013, hundreds of thousands of Romanians have been demonstrating against politicians and activities shrouded in corruption and illegalities.

The first decision that triggered the protests was the approval of the unconstitutional Rosia Montana draft bill, which afforded Gabriel Resources, a Canadian mining company, unprecedented powers, including that of expropriating Romanian citizens’ land in the vicinity of the gold mine that it wanted to exploit. The Canadian company planned to use 40 tonnes of cyanide a day to extract the gold resources at Rosia Montana which is the largest gold mine in Europe.

After the bill was rejected in parliament, the government submitted a new general mining law, widely criticised for catering to the interests of Gabriel Resources. This law was also shot down by the two houses of parliament, not because of its content, but because of a lack of quorum. These legal proposals suggest that the Romanian government and parliament are not interested in listening to public grievances and demands, but are focused on advancing politicians’ interests.

Similarly worrying is the fact that Toni Grebla, a key political supporter of the above-mentioned unconstitutional mining bill, was recently named a judge on Romania’s Constitutional Court, whose role is to decide whether or not a law violates the constitution. His previous records raise questions [Ro] about Grebla’s commitment to ensuring that the Romanian Constitution is abided by.  

Romania’s recent legislative measures represent an attack on the rule of law, and would afford an already widely corrupt political class even more power to pursue personal interests with impunity, instead of catering to the Romanian public.

While the amendments will likely be withdrawn due to national and international outrage, it is the de facto political immunity that remains more difficult to resolve due to the heavy involvement of politics in the judiciary, and widespread nepotism that prevents new political figures to emerge and cleanse the Romanian political class.

Raluca Besliu is a freelance journalist from Romania. She runs a blog about young change-makers and entrepreneurs called Taking on the Giant.