Commission concerned by 'death threat’ to Romanian judges

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The European Commission has joined the Council of Europe (CoE) in voicing concern about pressure – including death threats – to the independence of the Romanian judiciary, following a letter of complaint from the Constitutional Court.

The Court’s president, Augustin Zegrean, wrote to Viviane Reding along with several others last week (3 August) warning of “attacks launched by the government and other public authorities against the court and its judges”.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta's leftist Social Liberal Union (USL) is trying to oust suspended President Traian Basescu. An impeachment referendum held on 29 July yielded an 88% majority in favour of removing the centre-right Basescu, but the turnout did not reach the 50% threshold required by the Constitutional Court.

Romanian Constitutional Court to consider referendum result

The Court was therefore expected to invalidate the plebiscite but has put off its ruling until 31 August, and asked to see voter lists to assess the true size of the electorate after USL officials asserted that the actual number of voters was much smaller.

In the letter to Reding, seen by EurActiv, Zegrean said one judge, Aspazia Cojocaru, had “received serious threats” and filed a complaint with prosecutors “about those having threatened her life”. Zegrean said that during debates on whether to validate the referendum, another judge “confessed to the other judges that he was afraid to vote because of threats received by him and his family”.

On Tuesday (7 August), Reding replied to Zegrean in a letter expressing “very deep concern” about his complaints, and “particular concern” about the threats.

Commission report later this year will examine the issue

“Let me recall that politicians must not try to intimidate judges ahead of decisions to be taken, nor attack judges when they take decisions they do not like,” said the letter, seen by EurActiv.

Reding also fully endorsed the comments from the CoE’s Gianni Buquicchio (see report 8 August) in which he described the pressure on the court as “shocking”.

She said that the concerns touched on issues that would be addressed in a report on the EU’s Co-operation and Verification Mechanism with Romania, which will be published later this year.

Meanwhile, in an unexpected government reshuffle on Monday (6 August), Ponta replaced six ministers in an effort to restore the credibility of his coalition cabinet.

Ponta’s choice for the new justice minister – Mona Pivniceru – was, however, rejected by the National Magistrates Council, the institution that supervises the judiciary in Romania, because Pivniceru is a member of the council.

Ponta will act as interim justice minister until the matter is clarified, in signs of continuing tension between his government and the judiciary.

Positions: 

"It is intolerable that the socialist Prime Minister Ponta is putting pressure on the highest court and that single judges and their families are being threatened. Mr Ponta is thereby violating the principle of an independent judiciary," said German MEP Elmar Brok, a member of the European People’s Party Group Bureau.

Brok said of attempts by the socialist government to alter the results of the referendum, by reassessing the number of eligible voters: “This attempt to subsequently change the results of a democratic vote is not acceptable. Mr Ponta's effort to drive Mr Basescu out of office is another step in a series of personnel and institutional decisions made by Ponta, in order to inhibit any further anti-corruption proceedings."

"It is right that Ms Reding is now clearly supporting the president of the constitutional court of Romania, Mr Zegrean. The Romanian government must immediately find its way back to respecting the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary!" Brok concluded.

Timeline: 
  • 31 August: Romanian Constitutional Court to decide on the validity of the referendum on the impeachment of President Basescu
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