EU fraud prosecutor was wrongly dismissed from Romanian anti-graft job: court

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - The European Union’s fraud prosecutor was wrongly removed from her previous job as head of Romania’s anti-corruption agency, the European Court of Human Rights said on Tuesday in a landmark ruling against political interference in the judiciary.

FILE PHOTO: A woman holds up a sign that reads ' government without corruption' during a demonstration of thousands of Romanians against their government in Bucharest, Romania, February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

The court said Laura Codruta Kovesi’s dismissal in 2018 had “defeated the very purpose of maintaining judicial independence” and must have had “a chilling effect” on the ability of magistrates to engage in public debate on legislative reforms.

During Kovesi’s five years at its helm, the anti-corruption agency secured convictions of mayors, lawmakers and ministers across party lines, exposing conflicts of interest and abuse of power in one of the EU’s most corrupt states.

Her removal was the culmination of moves by the then Social Democrat government to change judicial legislation and replace chief prosecutors which led to street protests and alarmed the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.

“We all know my dismissal was part of a campaign to intimidate the judicial system, in an attempt to discourage the fight against corruption,” Kovesi told Reuters in a statement.

“This court ruling consolidates the status of all European magistrates and protects them from discretionary political interference from other (state) powers at a time when the independence of those investigating corruption or other serious crimes is under question in several places and in several ways.”

President Klaus Iohannis had been forced to dismiss Kovesi on the order of former justice minister Tudorel Toader, backed by a Constitutional Court ruling which set a precedent over how chief prosecutors can be removed.

Iohannis said Tuesday’s ruling underlined the Romanian constitutional court’s lack of credibility, and “cannot remain without consequences.”

He said the decision showed “how necessary it is to have a constitutional reform” of the constitutional court.”

Toader had accused Kovesi of overstepping her powers by criticising the government’s changes to judicial legislation.

But Tuesday’s court ruling said one of Kovesi’s duties had been to “express her opinion on legislative reforms which could have an impact on the judiciary and its independence, and on the fight against corruption.”

Kovesi, who was appointed the EU’s first fraud prosecutor last year, had challenged her dismissal at the European court, saying she wanted to send a message of support to prosecutors facing political harassment.

Transparency International ranks Romania, a former communist state, as one of the EU’s most corrupt member states and Brussels has kept its justice system under special monitoring since it joined the bloc in 2007.

Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Timothy Heritage