Romania files charges against former chief anti-corruption prosecutor

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - A Romanian agency tasked with investigating magistrates has filed criminal charges against former chief anti-corruption prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi and banned her from leaving the country for two months, it said on Friday.

Laura Codruta Kovesi, Romania's former chief anti-corruption prosecutor, arrives to attend a hearing at the Section for the Investigation of Criminal Offences in the judiciary in Bucharest, Romania, February 15, 2019. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via REUTERS

Kovesi is a frontrunner to become the European Union’s first fraud prosecutor, despite opposition from Romania’s ruling Social Democrats who forced her out of the country’s anti-corruption prosecuting unit DNA last year.

The SIIJ was set up by the Social Democrats last year among a slew of judicial system changes, prompting a European Commission warning that Romanian magistrates - judges and prosecutors - were vulnerable to political intimidation.

On Friday, the SIIJ said it has charged Kovesi with taking a bribe, abuse of office and giving false testimony, without providing details of the case.

It banned Kovesi, who has denied any wrongdoing, from discussing the case in public. She also cannot leave the country without express permission and must regularly check in with police officials.

“I am not allowed to tell you anything of what happened here today,” she told reporters late on Thursday after an hours-long hearing at SIIJ. “I think this is a measure to shut me up, of not saying what is going on, a measure to keep harassing all of us in the justice system who have done our jobs.”

During Kovesi’s five-year tenure at the helm of Romania’s DNA anti-corruption office, conviction rates for high-level graft jumped across the political spectrum, drawing praise from Brussels, civil society groups and private investors.

But Kovesi was reviled by the Social Democrat government before being forced out last year on the order of Justice Minister Tudorel Toader. She has challenged her dismissal at the European Court of Human Rights.

Transparency International ranks Romania as one of the EU’s most corrupt states and Brussels has kept its judicial system under special monitoring since it joined the bloc in 2007.

The European Commission criticized Romania on Friday for backsliding on the rule of law and called on Bucharest to treat Kovesi fairly.

“It is crucial that all candidates put forward by an independent selection panel are treated fairly in the course of this process,” Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a regular news briefing.

“We call on the Romanian government and on the Romanian authorities to fully respect the principle of sincere cooperation as enshrined in the treaty regarding the selection procedure of the European chief prosecutor,” he said.

Reporting by Luiza Ilie in Bucharest and Jan Strupczewski in Brussels; Editing by Mark Heinrich