May 2, 2018 / 12:40 PM / 7 months ago

Romanian president challenges judicial overhaul plan

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said on Wednesday he would challenge an overhaul of the judiciary backed by the ruling Social Democrat Party at the Constitutional Court, saying it posed a threat to magistrates’ independence.

FILE PHOTO: Romanian President Klaus Iohannis arrives at a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

Iohannis, a centrist often at odds with the center-left government, also said he would ask an agency of the Council of Europe, a rights watchdog, to assess the bills, which parliament has approved but which he must also sign for them to become law.

The European Commission, the U.S. State Department and thousands of Romanian magistrates have already criticized the 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 Romania’s justice system under special monitoring, is especially concerned that the overhaul, alongside pending changes to the criminal code, will reverse progress in fighting high-level graft.

The Social Democrats (PSD) used their big parliamentary majority to get the three bills in the package approved in record time last December, without an impact assessment and despite large street protests across the country.

“The unjustified speed and the authoritarian way in which parliamentary debates occurred have triggered a lot of distrust,” Iohannis told reporters.

“The justice reform, as the PSD claims it is, is still contested by magistrates’ associations and has raised great concerns from our foreign partners.”

Opposition parties have already challenged the bills twice this year at the Constitutional Court, and both times the judges ruled that some provisions were unconstitutional.

Iohannis said he would ask the Venice Commission - the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters - to assess the bills. He also urged the Constitutional Court judges to take their time and to work with the Venice Commission.

He said the overhaul contained provisions that would weaken the scope of prosecutors’ powers and create new structures meant to intimidate magistrates, such as a special prosecuting unit dedicated to potential crimes by judicial staff.

The bills would also increase the powers of the justice minister, a political appointee, to the detriment of a magistrates’ regulatory body.

Some provisions would enable magistrates to retire early, running a risk of blocking court activity, the president said.

If the Constitutional Court backs the president’s challenge, the bills would go back to parliament and lawmakers would have to remove any provisions deemed unconstitutional. Both houses of parliament would then have to approve the amended bills again.

Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Gareth Jones

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