Twelve Western nations urge Romania to ditch judicial changes

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Twelve Western nations urged Romania on Wednesday to scrap two planned emergency decrees altering judicial legislation, in a rare joint intervention that underlined U.S. and EU alarm over the threat to the rule of law in the former communist nation.

Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila delivers a speech during a debate on the priorities of the Romanian presidency of the E.U. for the next six months, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

The embassies’ joint statement coincided with a warning from the European Commission in Brussels saying it would take swift action against Romania if it failed to address its concerns over the independence of the judiciary.

Romania’s ruling Social Democrats want to reduce the statute of limitations covering several offences, a move which would automatically shut down a number of ongoing corruption cases.

They have also backed a second decree that would allow politicians and others convicted of graft since 2014 to retroactively challenge the verdicts handed down by the supreme court.

“The expected changes carry the risk of breaching common values,” the embassies of Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United States said in their joint statement.

“Furthermore, they might have a lasting negative effect on the country´s economic development.”

The decrees “apparently under discussion have the potential to impact on the independence of Romania’s judiciary, which would undermine Romanians’ and partners’ trust in the justice system, and in Romania’s government as well”, they said.

The decrees would benefit several high-level politicians, including Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea, who was unable to become prime minister due to a 2015 suspended jail term imposed in a vote-rigging case.

His appeal against a second conviction for inciting others to commit abuse of office in a separate case is nearing an end, with the next court date scheduled for April 15.

The decrees would be a culmination of a series of legislative and personnel changes the Social Democrats have made since they took power two years ago that are seen as threats to judicial independence and could further heighten EU concerns about democratic values in some of its eastern states.

Responding to the ambassadors’ appeal, Prime Minister Viorica Dancila said: “I would like to remind [them] that I have a direct dialogue with my counterparts. Ambassadors don’t make the prime minister’s agenda in ... any state.”

Transparency International ranks Romania among the European Union’s most corrupt states and Brussels, which keeps its justice system under special monitoring, has praised magistrates for their efforts to curb graft.

Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Gareth Jones