Winter is coming. During this season, people are usually preparing for the holidays and New Year’s resolutions. At least in the rest of the world, but not Romanians. Here’s what’s currently happening to the Romanian justice laws system, and why people are protesting the proposed changes.
Protest Over the Romanian Justice Laws System
In Romania, the season for protests has just begun – a new trend that will be remembered in the history books. Please note that when I say trend, I don’t mean these people are taking to the streets because it’s cool (although it really is) but because they are fed up with the corruption that digs its claws into Romania at an alarming rate.
Last year, in the same period, people were protesting against corruption. It’s this time of the year again. Same cause, different situation. The reasons for the protests are the changes to the Romanian justice laws system proposed by the ruling party. The process for modifying the justice laws has started in the middle of this year, and since then it has stirred a lot of controversy among Romanians. The new measures were criticized by several Romanian institutions, by the EU, by journalists, and by Romanian citizens. According to the UNJR (National Judges’ Union in Romania), modifying the justice laws was requested by the magistrates themselves.
The UNJR is a supporter of the modifications of the Romanian justice laws system and has concluded that although some of the proposed changes are good, some of them could be improved, while others are to be dismissed. In this article, I will explain what these changes entail using the best of my understanding of the Romanian justice laws system, and present some points of view on the subject. This topic is quite complex and wide.
Modifying the Romanian Justice Laws System
One of the main topics discussed in these modifications is the relationship between the Romanian Secret Services, the Magistrates, and the Prosecutors. It implies an interdiction for the Magistrates and the SRI to work together, under the threat of legal punishment in the case of violations of this article, for both parties. Also, the measure is related to the collaboration between the Magistrates and the SRI, retroactively to 1990. This means that if a candidate has collaborated with the SRI at any point between 1990 and now, his or her application would be dismissed.
In relation to this point, Dana Girboveanu, President of the National Judges Union of Romania, declared on her Facebook Page:
“One of the biggest threats to the independence of the judiciary is the interference of intelligence services, collaboration between judges/prosecutors and intelligence services, or the existence of protocols, decisions and secret agreements between prosecutors and intelligence services to which parties and judges have no accession. The amendments that the UNJR has proposed and the Commission have adopted will help eliminate this threat to the independence of the judiciary.”
Points of Contention
Another aspect that has been criticised is Article 31, which says that the President of Romania has the right to dismiss an application of appointed judges and prosecutors. The UNJR had considered that the President has the right to appoint judges and prosecutors after they had passed all the exams and tests as a formal action. The President doesn’t have the right to be involved in the selection process, but only as a solemn act.
The most criticised measure is about giving more power to the politicians over the judicial system by allowing the Ministry of Justice to appoint Judges and Prosecutors.
The main reason for criticism is that by involving politics in the justice system, it would help propagate corruption. The judicial system should be independent for the greater good of a democratic state. In case this happens, the public’s trust in politicians would be destroyed. It would create a gap between the people and politicians by making the latter completely untouchable and unaccountable for their actions concerning their job to serve the public interest. The Minister of Justice has agreed to change the article regarding this specific transformation.
The Romanian Justice Laws System, Europe, and the United States?
The modifications brought to the justice laws are an ongoing and complex process that takes time and a lot of resources. At this moment, all the experts on the subject are working on it in collaboration with European Institutions and the United States Department.
The MCV (Cooperation and Verification Mechanism – an EU organization) declared at the beginning of October:
“In view of the will of the overwhelming majority of magistrates, we ask you, in order to remove any doubts about the misappropriation of this project to the detriment of the magistracy, to dispose its withdrawal (rejection at the Government level, as the case, may be, avoiding its advancement to the Parliament), and to initiate and develop a concrete and effective dialogue with magistrates, the Superior Council of Magistracy, professional associations of judges and prosecutors, in order to improve the legislative framework, after carrying out appropriate impact studies and after presenting serious and credible motives regarding the proposed changes, in the purpose of modernizing the magistracy and the justice system, in line with the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism.”
The American State Department has also signaled concerns regarding the current modifications:
“The United States notes with concern that the Parliament of Romania is considering legislation that could undermine the fight against corruption and weaken judicial independence in Romania. This legislation, which was originally proposed by the Ministry of Justice, threatens the progress Romania has made in recent years to build strong judicial institutions shielded from political interference. We urge the Parliament of Romania to reject proposals that weaken the rule of law and endanger the fight against corruption.”
Protesting Against the Changes
An incredible mobilization of the civic society has been observed since the above modifications were proposed. The petition “All for Justice” on Declic’s website – “a community of citizens who are campaigning for a more just society” currently sits at over 40,100 signatures.
Furthermore, a series of protests took place since the announcement of the changes in justice law, culminating last Sunday, on November 26th, in over 20,000 of protesters in Bucharest as well as other cities across Romania and in the diaspora.
I have interviewed some of the people present in front of the Government Building, holding cardboards with the slogan “All for Justice” and chanting “Thieves, thieves” and “PSD, the red plague”, to find out why they were protesting in such a cold weather.
A 36-year-old woman responded: “The list is very very long but it starts with the justice system and can be continued by free choice with education, health, and with absolutely all the subjects they (author’s note: the Social-Democratic Party) threw in the air this year.”
A young man has said the following: “I am tired of the fact that so many people are stealing, especially the ones from the government… simple.” His friend completed the sentence with “We’re against the justice laws and against the way they want to make justice in Romania”, while a third friend said: “or the way they don’t want to make justice”.
There are several voices highlighting the dangers of going down a totalitarian path if the justice system relies on politics. It’s a path most Romanians I’ve met at the protest are not willing to take, especially since we’ve escaped the communist system 28 years ago. Others are afraid the actual modifications will take Romania off from the European route, representing a risk to Romanian democracy.