February 22, 2018 / 5:46 PM / 10 months ago

Romanian minister calls for prosecutor's sacking, graft crackdown under threat

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania’s Justice Minister called on Thursday for the country’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor to be dismissed for “excess of authority”, triggering street protests and potentially destabilizing a crackdown on graft.

Romanian Justice Minister Tudorel Toader gestures while talking to media representatives minutes before delivering a news conference in Bucharest, Romania, February 22, 2018. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via REUTERS

Tudorel Toader read a summary of a 20-point report arguing for Laura Codruta Kovesi’s dismissal that he compiled himself, telling a news conference she was responsible for “acts and facts intolerable to the rule of law.”

She has led anti-corruption prosecution agency DNA since 2013 and, under her management, conviction rates have risen sharply in one of the European Union’s most corrupt states, winning plaudits from EU authorities in Brussels who have Romania’s justice system under special monitoring.

The country’s ruling Social Democrats tried a year ago to decriminalize several corruption offences by emergency decree, leading to its largest street protests in decades.

A judicial overhaul approved by the ruling coalition late last year - which was criticized by the president, thousands of magistrates, the European Commission and the U.S. State Department - is back in parliament after the Constitutional Court ruled some of its provisions were unconstitutional.

“DNA is not the same as its chief prosecutor, whose actions have proved can jeopardise the institution through an excess of authority... defying parliament’s authority and challenging Constitutional Court rulings,” Toader said.

The minister, part of a one-month old cabinet that is Romania’s third in just a year, declined to answer reporters’ questions. Some of the arguments he invoked were unproved local media allegations of misconduct.

President Klaus Iohannis, who has the final say on the removal of chief prosecutors, said in a statement Toader’s report was unclear and needed analysis.

“The president has repeatedly said he was satisfied by the activity of DNA and its leadership, an opinion he continues to have,” the statement said.

‘YOU’RE NOT GETTING AWAY WITH IT’

DNA has investigated lawmakers, ministers, mayors, magistrates and businessmen in recent years, exposing conflicts of interest, abuse of power, fraud and the award of state contracts in exchange for bribes.

It has sent over 70 members of parliament to trial since 2006. The speakers of parliament’s lower house and senate are both currently on trial in separate cases.

In a news conference last week, Kovesi defended DNA against attacks by some of those currently on trial, saying she would have no reason to resign if she was asked to.

“This attack isn’t about Kovesi, it is about the prosecutors who have done their job. It aims to make the Romanian state kneel, humiliate society and the Romanian people,” she said.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside government headquarters following Toader’s news conference, chanting “You’re not getting away with it”.

More were joining them and demonstrations also broke out in at least three other cities, according to social media postings by participants.

“In case there were people doubting the justice minister was not a political actor, this evening has clarified that,” said Sergiu Miscoiu, political science professor at Babes-Bolyai University.

Reporting by Luiza Ilie; editing by John Stonestreet

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