On January 20, 2018, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Bucharest, protesting a proposed overhaul of Romania’s judicial system. It was the latest in a series of anti-government demonstrations that have been sweeping the country since last year.
“We have a mafia group leading this country right now,” says Tudor Carstoiu, who braved the cold weather to join the protest. “The politicians which are now at power, the PSD, they basically, many of them, have huge problems with the law. So they just want to push all those reforms just to not have problems any more with the law”.
Many of Romania’s leading politicians are under investigation for corruption, tax evasion or the fraudulent use of European Union funds. Those same lawmakers are now trying to overhaul the judicial system that holds them accountable.
Attila Biro is one of Romania’s most high-profile whistle-blowers and heads the Rise Project’s team of investigative journalists and award-winning researchers.
They have been looking into the allegedly corrupt activities of the head of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD).
“We are talking about Liviu Dragnea, who is now the most influential politician in Romania and who actually controlled Tel Drum, a local construction company,” Biro tells euronews.
Biro says that a confidential report prepared by Romania’s secret service shows that Tel Drum is controlled by Dragnea.
“This company grew and grew with hundreds of millions of euros sent from the national and from the local budget,” Biro said. “And the local budget in Teleorman, Dragnea’s birthplace, was controlled by Liviu Dragnea”.
Biro says that some 400 million euros from the state and local budget was transfered to Tel Drum, who in turn moved some of the money to Dragnea’s friends and, eventually, to his son.
Teleorman county is Dragnea’s local stronghold.
Dragnea and Tel Drum executives are under investigation by Romania’s anti-corruption bureau for alleged activities that took place during Dragnea’s tenure as president of Teleorman County Council.
They are suspected of operating an organized criminal group and their assets have been seized.
Carmen Dumitrescu is a local investigative journalist. Aboard a boat on the Danube river, she tells euronews about the Belina Island case.
It’s a story of shady leases and the transfer of public property to private companies.
“The problem with Belina Island is that this area belonged to the Romanian state at the beginning,” Dumitrescu explains. “But at the time Mr. Dragnea became minister of regional development, and Mrs. Sevil Shaiddeh was secretary of state at this ministry, he approved the concession of Belina Island to Tel Drum company, a company suspected to be led exactly by Liviu Dragnea from the shadows”.
Dragnea calls the ongoing investigation “a violent attack on the government”, aimed at destroying the ruling Social Democratic Party.
But locals say that areas that used to be open to the public are now closed off.
“Before the leasing deal, we came here to fish and we would have barbecues on Belina Island,” says one fisherman. Afraid of Dragnea’s far-reaching network, he won’t give his real name or show his face on camera.
“Now there are fences and we’re forbidden from entering the area,” he explained. “After Tel Drum took over, barriers were put up and only their collaborators have access, not us”.
There’s more: Dragnea and Tel Drum executives are accused of setting up a criminal network in order to illegally obtain public road working contracts. They are also suspected of inflating the cost of their equipment. In all, some 20 million euros in EU funding has been paid out based on falsified documents, it seems.
The EU’s anti-fraud unit OLAF is also on the case: Brussels wants its money back.
“It’s about European taxpayers’ money,” Carmen Dumitrescu tells euronews. “This whole fraudulent scheme is about the construction of rural roads through Liviu Dragnea’s favoured company, Tel Drum. And given the fact that public bids were falsified, we can understand where the fraud lies and why the Romanian anti-corruption directorate is also investigating”.
Turnu Magurele is Dragnea’s hometown and where he started his political career. But his support among local residents appears to be crumbling.
“It’s a very good thing to bring down this mustachioed man, (Dragnea), who mocked the whole district of Teleorman and brought us poverty,” said Turnu Magurele resident Adi Maruntelu.
“I am 53 years old and I can’t find a job! There are no jobs here because of them! They mocked this country and they mocked us and we keep voting for this PSD party who mocks us. This is why our kids leave the country, this is the reason for this whole situation and we need to regain our dignity and show some backbone to take them down”.
Taking down corrupt VIPs is the job of the Romanian Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), headed by Laura Kövesi.
Over the last five years, her investigators have sent more than 70 people to trial, including one prime minister, two deputy prime ministers, 11 ministers and more than 50 members of parliament.
Busting criminal networks leave former professional basketball player, Kövesi, little time to play, but she’s still got quick reactions. When the government proposed an overhaul of the justice system, she blew the whistle.
She says the proposed judicial reforms aren’t based on a real desire for reform; rather they are a bid to protect corrupt lawmakers from DNA investigation.
“In many of our investigations, we get our evidence from sting operations and we won’t be able to use this kind of investigative tool anymore. This affects our anti-corruption inquiries and would also hamper the work of other prosecutors working on cases such as drug trafficking, human trafficking or cyber-crime” Kövesi says.
“They hamstring the legislation, they destroy the investigative tools that we use in our work”.
Corruption is everywhere
Members of the Social Democratic Party have accused Kövesi of political bias. But the anti-corruption officers say they use their investigative tools to crack down on graft everywhere, regardless of party affiliation.
Architect Serban Marinescu was part of a team bidding for a public tender to renovate a square in Ramnicu Valcea, a town ruled by conservative mayor Emilian Francu. When they were asked for a bribe, the architects called the anti-corruption bureau and together they set a trap.
“We won the national contest, we did our project, we delivered a project, and then at some point this guy came and said, ‘You should give me 10 percent because this is my city’”.
During a meeting, Francu passed the architects a piece of paper detailing his demands, Marinescu says:
“My friend was a bit confused, he had a (hidden) video (camera) on him, he was struggling to get the paper filmed, he read the paper and said, ‘Yes, we will do this (pay the 10 percent)’. Then the guy relaxed completely and started to say what good things we can do together when we were partners”.
March of Hope
The corrupt mayor was jailed, meaning that there is still hope in Romania. That’s why protesters have called their anti-corruption demonstration the ‘March of Hope’. But there is also fear: the discussed legal changes would decriminalise certain types of corruption.
Sorin Bobis walked all the way from Cluj, some 450 kilometres outside Bucharest. It took him 11 days to reach the capital for a big demonstration organised by civil society through social media.
Setting out for the march, Bobis carries the blue and yellow flag of the European Union.
“We are carrying the European flag because Romania is part of the European Union and I don’t want an unfair demarcation between Romania and the European Union, between West and East. We are part of the European Union and we want to stay there”.
Arriving on foot, by car, by bus, by plane, by train – all day long groups converged on Bucharest to join the protest.
“We are from Sibiu in Transylvania, in central Romania, and we came here for a national protest,” says Ioana Pasc. “We do not want it to be a democracy just on paper. We really want it to act and it is important for the justice to be independent in order to be a real democracy. So we do not want become the next Poland or Turkey”.
Standing in front of the ruling party headquarters, Diana Maria Voicu of the Initiativa Romania NGO explains that the proposed legal changes are tailor-made to protect party leader Dragnea and others in his network from criminal prosecution.
“The laws allow for political control of the judiciary and that means that all the corrupt figures in the ruling coalition can and could be possibly free of being prosecuted and sentenced”.
The young people at the heart of the protest movement call their group Corruption Kills.
Using social media, they have built up a network of supporters across Romania.
“The modification of the justice laws is the first step toward dictatorship,” says Angi Serban of Corruption Kills. “We had that before and we paid with blood in 1989. And after over 20 years we are at the same spot and I am fighting back, I am fighting back”.
Florin Badita is the group’s founder:
“We have a justice system that started to work and they want to cripple it for their own personal interest. We will not allow this”.
If the ruling parties had hoped people would tire of protesting and decide to stay at home instead of turning out in the rain and snow, they will have been disappointed. As with the many earlier protests, the January 20 demonstration is huge, with some 50,000 demonstrators coming out in Bucharest alone.
The European Commission and the Council of Europe are also concerned about what they see as Romania’s “backtracking” in the fight against corruption. But Bucharest is determined to go ahead with the controversial reforms.
While PSD leader Dragnea did not respond to euronews’ request for an interview, the party’s Senate Speaker, Serban Nicolae, agreed to talk.
Nicolae tells euronews that the anti-corruption bureau is linked to Romania’s secret service:
“If you conduct an investigation using secret protocols, (using) common teams of prosecutors with officers from the secret service, this is deep illegal, this is deep part of abuse, this is like a cancer of society and it undermines the credibility of the judiciary action, especially in the anti-corruption fight”.
By allegedly employing these tactics, Nicolae says, Laura Kövesi has undermined her credibility as head of the DNA task force.
“If she considers that she had done nothing wrong by using secret protocols or secret rules of procedure, she should go”.
Leading Romanian senator attacks head of Anticorruption Directorate DNA, Laura Kövesi. “She should go”, PSD senator Serban Nicolae says— Hans von der Brelie (@euronewsreport) 31 janvier 2018
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Nicolae also pushes back against DNA’s aggressive pre-trial tactics. Defendants are often arrested in the full glare of the media before being detained – for weeks or even months – ahead of their trial.
“If you have a corrupt person, a high-ranking official, you do not have to arrest this person. You have to get evidence. The preventive (pre-trial) arrest is not a sanction. It is like a way to show the power of the prosecutors, it is like street judgement,” Nicolae says. “If people see a high-ranking politician handcuffed in front of the camera in the middle of the night, some people feel some kind of satisfaction, like in antique Rome of the gladiators in the arena. But this is not a judicial system, this is revenge, this is political fight, this is abuse, this is also corruption”.
Judging the Judges
A majority of judges and prosecutors oppose the proposed reforms, including Lucia Zaharia, a member of the Romanian Judges’ Forum.
The judicial reforms were adopted without proper consultation, Zaharia says. But the lack of transparency is not her only criticism.
“The amendments of the judicial laws introduce a kind of (personal) liability for judges and prosecutors that extends too much; they can be sanctioned. The sanctions can go as far as dismissal from the office. Personally, I feel vulnerable and I think any judge and prosecutor will feel the same”.
Since euronews spoke to Zaharia, Romania’s constitutional court ruled against the introduction of personal liability for judges and prosecutors. The court said that aspect of the proposed reform must be scrapped.
The roots of Romania’s current wave of protests can be found at the Collectiv Club in Bucharest.
In 2015, a fire at the club killed 64 people.
A failure to enforce fire safety rules combined with alleged corruption led to the country’s first large anti-corruption demonstrations and the ‘Corruption Kills’ movement was founded.
Mumu survived the fire but one of his colleagues was killed.
“It was like hell, a pure hell,” Mumu says.
“Boys and girls tried to run (out of) the club and they got stuck in the front of the door because the door could not open,”.
The link to corruption is that the city official who signed the club’s permit did so despite the fact it didn’t meet safety standards, Mumu says.
Mumu explains that many victims died in hospital because Romania’s medical system is also undermined by systematic corruption.
“I want justice” Mumu says. “This is my only claim, justice. We are just waiting”.