195636 3/6/2009 11:58 09BUCHAREST153 Embassy Bucharest CONFIDENTIAL P 061158Z MAR 09 FM AMEMBASSY BUCHAREST TO SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9294 INFO EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY C O N F I D E N T I A L BUCHAREST 000153
STATE FOR EUR/FO (GARBER), EUR/CE, EUR/ERA, AND EUR/PGI
E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/27/2019 TAGS: PGOV, PREL, KJUS, EU, RO SUBJECT: A PERFECT STORM: CORRUPTION, RULE OF LAW, AND JUSTICE REFORMS TAKE CENTER STAGE IN ROMANIA
Classified By: CDA Jeri Guthrie-Corn for 1.5 (b) and (d)
1. (C) Summary: An unexpected convergence of factors has recently brought matters involving the Rule of Law (ROL) and much-needed justice reforms into high relief. These include, inter alia: reports of rising criminality amidst a declining economy; scandals involving the penal system; a parliamentary decision to refer the corruption case involving former PSD Prime Minister Adrian Nastase to trial; a scathing European Commission monitoring report on justice sector reform; roll-out of a reform package involving revision of major legal codes; and even the release of the 2008 State Department Human Rights Report containing a critical assessment of the weaknesses in the Romanian justice system. A European Commission contact evinced concern about the rise in criminality, as well as with the appointment to high level positions of individuals with pending corruption investigations or possible organized crime links. The Commission's highly-critical February monitoring report also prompted President Basescu to convene a "Justice Summit" that approved a fast-track "Big Bang" reform of four major legal codes--Criminal, Criminal Procedure, Civil, and Civil Procedure--and to push forward with the Nastase prosecution. Some Embassy contacts expressed concern that the hasty approval of new laws will do little to fix a justice system that labors under a backlog of over five million cases and little money to implement reforms. Justice Minister Predoiu's suggestion to revive the MOJ's internal intelligence capability was also criticized by the ROL community as a throwback to Ceaucescu-era bad habits. End Summary.
Spate of Media Coverage on Rising Crime
3. (SBU) It is still unclear whether rising criminality in Romania is more media hype than a concrete phenomenon. The local press has been awash with headlines of spectacular crimes, including the Gorbunov case (involving a brazen murder-robbery committed by an individual released on medical parole and subsequently "lost" by penal authorities for nearly two years from Romania's notorious Craiova penitentiary). The case triggered a medical clemency-for-sale scandal involving Romania's penal system, and was followed by new revelations that a serial rapist had committed more sexual attacks--including raping his own lawyer--while out on medical parole. A violent weekend melee at a popular Bucharest shopping mall involving an extortion gang (with ties to communist-era security agencies) and private security guards also received widespread coverage. Other headlines included a recent front-page Romania Libera spread which characterized Romania as "Swiss Cheese for Criminals" and accusing authorities of being powerless in dealing with a wave of criminality. Not to be outdone, rival daily Evenimentul Zilei responded with an expose featuring a map of Bucharest divided into zones allegedly controlled by rival mafiosi.
Opposition Decries Police Budget Cuts
4. (C) Embassy contacts remain divided on the seriousness of the crime issue. We spoke recently with three members--two from the PNL and one from the PSD--from the Senate and Chamber Defense and Home Affairs Committees, which oversee the Defense and Interior Ministry budgets. Their reactions divided along party lines, with Senate Committee Chairman (and former Defense Minister) Teodor Melescanu and Chamber of Deputies Committee Vice President George Scutaru stressing the dire consequences of the 2009 austerity budget. Scutaru also insisted that leadership turmoil in the Interior Ministry (e.g., four Interior Ministers in three months) and the resulting policy vacuum had severely hampered authorities' ability to deal with crime. In contrast, PSD Deputy Georgian Pop admitted that the economic downturn might result in some uptick of criminality but insisted that the situation in the ministry was not so dire: police budgets had fallen as a percentage of GDP, but the overall figures were stable in absolute terms.
European Commission Worried Too
5. (C) European Commission contacts are also seized with the issue. Dorina Nastase, head of the EC Representation's Political Section, told us that while the EC was worried about the recent rise in criminal activities, they were concerned as well with the appointment to high-level positions (including deputy ministers and chiefs of key government agencies) of individuals with criminal backgrounds, pending corruption investigations, and even alleged links between politicians and the underworld. The EC's Nastase alluded to the existence of informal EU reports that more than a year ago forecast that--under conditions of economic hardship and growing corruption--some Romanian state institutions might risk becoming captured by organized crime groups. At the same time, she said, there were expectations that social unrest might increase in the wake of budgetary cuts, as rising unemployment and drastic reductions in economic opportunities took their toll.
Reports Underscore Lack of Progress
6. (C) The mid-February release of an interim European Commission monitoring report provided little comfort to Romanians expecting the EU to quickly lift the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism to assess shortcomings in Romania's justice sector. The brief (and unusually blunt) report underscored that the pace of progress in the previous EC report had not been maintained; investigations of high-level corruption remain blocked by parliament; accountability of magistrates still needed significant improvement; and Romanian authorities had to regain momentum to reverse signs of recent regress. Other reports receiving press play included the near-simultaneous release of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA)'s annual report and the State Department Human Rights Report for Romania, which continued to note the shortcomings of Romania's justice sector.
Infighting, Lack of Coordination Among Crime-Fighters
7. (C) The DNA report elicited unexpected comments from Prosecutor General Laura Kovesi, who criticized her erstwhile ally, DNA Chief Prosecutor Daniel Morar, for the low productivity of DNA prosecutors. Kovesi reportedly charged DNA prosecutors with averaging only two cases per prosecutor last year. (Note: Superior Council of Magistrates Vice Chairman Bogdan Licu speculated to Polcouns that Kovesi's criticism might have been motivated by jealousy of Morar's rising reputation as a corruption fighter; Licu also noted that Kovesi's statistic was "unfair" since it counted a number of unfilled prosecutorial positions within the DNA and also included prosecutors with administrative or liaison responsibilities who were not directly involved in investigations and prosecutions.) Kovesi subsequently apologized for her comments.
8. (C) Infighting among other agency heads responsible for justice reforms has been endemic. In recent months, Prosecutor General Kovesi confided to Charge that she distrusted Justice Minister Predoiu and was loath to leave Bucharest for fear that he might pull an "end-run" on her in her absence. Similarly, both DNA Chief Prosecutor Daniel Morar and National Integrity Agency head Alexandru Macovei told us separately that there was virtually no contact between their agencies and the Justice Minister. Morar complained to the Embassy that Predoiu during his first term had never once set foot in the DNA headquarters. When asked about his contact with Predoiu, Macovei laughed and told Polcouns that they had bumped into each other on the street once and had awkwardly waved to each other.
Basescu Knocks Heads Together
9. (C) President Basescu on February 17 convened an emergency "Justice Summit" at Cotroceni Palace to approve an action plan to deal with justice sector reforms. The meeting brought together Justice Minister Predoiu, Prosecutor General Kovesi, DNA Head Morar, ANI Head Macovei, Senate President Mircea Geoana, Chamber of Deputies President Roberta Anastase, Justice Committee President Daniel Buda, CSM Chairman Virgil Andreies and CSM Deputy Chairman Bogdan Licu. We met separately with three participants--Buda, Licu, and Macovei--who agreed that Basescu's meeting gave much-needed impetus to a joint action plan to fulfill the EU benchmarks on justice sector reform. Licu diplomatically described the session as "relatively candid"; Macovei said the debate was "heated," with visible tension between Basescu and Geoana. One example was when Geoana and other PSDers complained that the Nastase case was politically motivated. Basescu reportedly snapped: "Don't make me release these files to the public--every one of the criminal complaints against Nastase are from people in your own party, not mine." Despite the heated debate, meeting participants reportedly agreed to two main action items: fast-track approval of new legal codes and agreement to refer the Nastase corruption case to trial.
Big-Bang Code Reform Will Be Centerpiece
10. (C) Our interlocutors said that the key decision at Basescu's justice summit was to create two separate ad hoc parliamentary committees to examine a set of four new legal codes--Criminal Codes, Criminal Procedure Code, Civil Code, and Civil Procedure Code--within two months. At the end of the two-month period, the Government would pass all four code drafts on a fast-track "assumption of responsibility" procedure. (Note: this would make the passage of the codes tantamount to a confidence vote. End note.) The idea behind the fast-track process was to keep parliamentarians from adding excessive amendments to the code drafts. Alexandru Macovei noted that the PSD preference was for a slower process allowing them to discuss--and amend--the code package through regular parliamentary procedure. Macovei said that Basescu's proposal was the lesser of two evils: a fast-track process might risk insufficient scrutiny of the draft laws, but a slower approach--which could push the decision beyond the year-end Presidential race--risked letting legislators do some real damage.
11. (C) Other Embassy contacts were leery of the fast-track option. Cristi Danilet and Adrian Neacsu, two founders of SoJust (Society for Justice, a group of reform-minded younger judges) told Polcouns that while they felt Basescu was "sincere" in pushing reform, it was also a cynical attempt to "check the box" to lift the EU's monitoring mechanism quickly. There were no consultations with the stakeholders--judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police, and intelligence services--who would actually live with and implement the new codes. Danilet added that draconian cuts in the 2009 Justice Ministry budget meant that there was money this year for judicial salaries but nothing left over to implement code reforms. Judges faced a backlog of over five million cases, and money even for essentials such as electricity, utilities, or even delivery of subpoenas was lacking. Similarly, former MOJ State Secretary Laura Stefan noted that the new codes needed better scrutiny as some "reforms" included lower penalties and shorter statutes of limitations for some corruption offenses, and even the substitution of fines in lieu of incarceration for corruption offenses. This, she noted, was tantamount to a tax on the corrupt individuals who got caught.
Former PM Nastase: Corruption Poster Child?
12. (C) On March 4 in a 158-128 vote Parliament unblocked the criminal prosecution of former Prime Minister Nastase, delivering on one of the agreements made during Basescu's justice summit. However, it appears that votes from the PDL and PNL were instrumental, as an estimated 90 PSD parliamentarians (out of 114) voted against. (Note: this mass PSD defection bodes ill for the fast-track code reform that was also agreed to at the Justice Summit. End Note.) This was also despite Nastase's own last-minute public declaration that he wanted his immunity lifted so that he could face his day in court. Given Nastase's past legal maneuverings, and his intention to call at least 900 witnesses for questioning in a related corruption case already in court, we can safely predict that progress on the various Nastase court cases will continue to be protracted at best, and full of constitutional and technical challenges. Nevertheless, the parliamentary decision to authorize a criminal investigation against a former prime minister sends a powerful signal.
Reform Through Blackmail?
13. (C) Press attention has also focused on Justice Minister Predoiu's proposal to revive the Protection and Anti-Corruption Service (SIPA) abolished by then-Justice Minister Monica Macovei in 2005. SoJust founder Danilet (who served in the Macovei team) told Polcouns that SIPA was essentially the Justice Ministry's in-house intelligence service, with the task of snooping on the private lives of judges, prosecutors, court officials, and even private citizens. He had seen their files, which contained details about illicit sexual affairs of judges and prosecutors, even medical records on which female judges had abortions. It was, noted Danilet, a throwback to the Ceaucescu era, and a fallacy to believe that one could blackmail judges into reforming. (Note: Danilet disclosed that while files prior to 2001 had been destoyed, the MOJ still retained files from 2001-2005, in two small rooms accessible to the Justice Minister. End note.) Similarly, CSM Deputy Chairman Licu told Polcouns that the Superior Council of Magistrates had told Justice Minister Predoiu categorically that reviving SIPA was a bad idea. Predoiu had subsequently requested a meeting with CSM leaders for further discussions, but the CSM had refused to attend. ANI head Macovei said that the SIPA issue also came up briefly during Basescu's Justice Summit: Geoana had demanded that Predoiu explain the logic for reviving the service; Basescu intervened by saying "this is outside our agenda today" and Geoana backed off.
14. (C) Comment: Our pick-up team of justice sector reformers is fraught with bad chemistry; many simply do not play well together. It is telling, for example, that CSM Deputy Chairman Licu requested that our meeting be "off the record" and that it not be brought to the attention of the CSM Chairman. Licu even mused that it might have been better if the CSM had been disbanded and justice architecture be redrawn from zero. Nevertheless, he insisted that the reformers were still managing to win some battles and were the last bulwark between the politicians and the judges. Licu also cited the CSM refusal to endorse Justice Minister Predoiu's transparent attempts to sideline DNA head Morar as another recent victory. (Note: Morar's survival is also due to the courage of Prosecutor General Kovesi who defied Predoiu to extended Morar's appointment twice on a temporary basis. Kovesi herself will face a battle to renew her mandate later this year. End note.) Younger judges including the SoJust group have thanked the Embassy for endorsing some of their ideas, including their proposal to put all judicial decisions online--a simple but powerful way to increase transparency that has now been embraced by their CSM elders (with full implemtation promised by the end of 2010). In terms of other Embassy initiatives, we are now working closely with the Romanian Academic Society (a refuge for many Macovei-era justice ministry officials) to organize a conference where magistrates from Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova can meet with counterparts from the U.S., UK, the Netherlands, and other countries to compare notes on best practices and to discuss possible solutions--the logic being that we can mobilize the "soft" power of peer-to-peer discussions to promote reform in an institution that jealously guards its independence. End Comment.