July 13, 2018 / 4:47 PM / 9 days ago

European body says Romania court changes undermine independence

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania’s plans for a judicial overhaul would be likely to undermine the independence of magistrates and sap public confidence in the judiciary, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters said on Friday.

The advice from the body, known as the Venice Commission, could provide ammunition for centrist President Klaus Iohannis, who is trying to block legal changes that opponents say would make it easier for officials to engage in corruption.

Iohannis has challenged the overhaul backed by the ruling Social Democrats at the Constitutional Court. He asked the Venice Commission to assess the bills, which parliament has approved but which he must sign for them to become law.

The Commission said in a statement that the measures contained improvements from previous drafts but were still problematic. From their “cumulative effect”, some “instruments could result in inordinate pressure on judges and prosecutors.”

The Council of Europe, made up of 47 member states, is a human rights body that shares a flag with the European Union but is separate from it. It set up the Venice Commission of experts after the fall of the Berlin wall to help advise European states emerging from communism on how to enact constitutional reforms.

The EU’s executive commission and thousands of Romanian magistrates have criticized the Romanian overhaul, saying it would leave courts and prosecutors vulnerable to political interference in one of the European Union’s most corrupt states.

Brussels, which keeps Bucharest’s justice system under special monitoring since Romania joined the bloc in 2007, is especially concerned that the judicial overhaul will reverse progress in fighting high-level graft.

The bills give more power to the justice minister, a political appointee, to the detriment of a magistrates’ regulatory body. The overhaul is facing legal challenges by the centrist opposition at the Constitutional Court, as are separate changes to the criminal code which would eliminate or reduce punishment for a range of crimes.

The Venice Commission recommended Romania “re-consider the system for the appointment/dismissal of high-ranking prosecutors, including by revising related provisions of the Constitution”.

Romania’s tussle with its European Union partners comes after Hungary and Poland also clashed with Brussels over judicial reforms. The proposed changes in the three former Communist states have widened a gap between the EU’s eastern and western wings.

On Monday, Iohannis was required to fire chief anti-corruption prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi, under a constitutional court ruling which Kovesi said might leave prosecutors exposed to political interference.

Kovesi has led the DNA anti-corruption agency since 2013 and, under her management, conviction rates have risen sharply, winning plaudits from Brussels. The justice minister is expected to announce a replacement by the end of the month.

Editing by Peter Graff

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