Radu Mazare is one of more than 3 million Romanians who work outside the country. But he's more than a little different to most of them.
He first started to visit the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar as an alternative to his usual holiday destination of Brazil. "I felt amazing from the first visit back in 2011," he told Euronews. When he decided to move to the island more permanently last year, however, another feature of the island was at the forefront of his mind - the fact that it had no extradition treaty with his native country.
Mazare, a former mayor of the Black Sea port of Constanta, was sentenced to six years and six months in jail for abuse of office. In one of the cases, he is accused of selling municipal plots of land at undervalued prices, with a total estimated loss for the city of Constanta of €3 million.
He disputes the charges, pointing out that an appeals court had earlier acquitted him of the same charges. However, he says he has no confidence in the judicial system and is therefore seeking political asylum in Madagascar.
“My current status is that of an asylum seeker in the African country as I stand no chance of a fair trial in Romania”, he told Euronews via Whatsapp. “In Romania, the justice system is under the control of the Romanian Intelligence Service,” he added.
Mazare became a celebrity during his fifteen years in office, partly as a result of his flamboyant behaviour. He was seen leading parades dressed as a pharaoh, a sultan or even as a Nazi officer. The latter stunt drew a fierce rebuke from the Anti-Semitism Centre in Romania, which considered Mazare’s gesture to be “outrageous and provocative” and made an official complaint to the Prosecutor’s office.
And in moving to a new country, Mazare has not adopted the typical lifestyle associated with an asylum seeker.
A water sports enthusiast, he has a stake in a kitesurfing resort on the island and holds a long-term lease on land containing 16 luxury bungalows.
Keen on his way of life and not looking to exchange his tropical ocean view for that of a Romanian courtroom, or jail cell, the ex-politician said he has no plans to return to Romania. “My rights have constantly been infringed by the Romanian parallel and occult state where there is no fair justice”, Radu Mazare concluded over WhatsApp.
The European Union has been following Romania's efforts to root out corruption and has praised the progress made in prosecuting politicians who abuse their powers. However, during the past few months, following high profile convictions of politicians such as Mazare, the government sought to water down anti-graft rules. On Tuesday, it won a court victory in its battle to dismiss anti-corruption chief Laura Kovesi.
The World Justice project ranks Romania 29th out of 180 countries on the rule of law, sandwiched behind the Carribean nations of Barbados and St Kitts and Nevis and ahead of Italy and Greece. It is 59 places above Madagascar.
Mazare's case is not unique.
Another high-ranking official looking to evade Romania’s anti-corruption push is Elena Udrea, ex-minister and candidate in Romania’s last presidential election. Eager to rebuild her life thousands of kilometres away from home, Udrea fled to Costa Rica earlier this year.
Beginning her political career as a former advisor to then-president Traian Basescu and regarded as his protégé, Udrea quickly climbed the ranks to become tourism minister. Her political career ended abruptly when criminal investigation began into alleged corruption claims.
Before her departure in February, she was sentenced to six years in prison with the right to appeal, charged with bribery and abuse of office.
Udrea initially told the media she was on holiday in Costa Rica, but later admitted requesting political refugee status there for alleged abuses in her home country. Despite her lawyer saying the request was granted, no official has confirmed the claim.
Five months pregnant and three months into her Costa Rican self-exile, Elena Udrea has said she is considering seeking help from the UN, and will only return to Romania if she believes she will get a fair trial.
Udrea did not respond to requests for comment sent by WhatsApp.
Much closer to home, but also in self-imposed exile, Sebastian Ghita, a former MP and businessman, has been fighting extradition from Serbia for a year and a half. Romania and Serbia have no extradition agreement, so despite being arrested and later released on bail by Serbian police, Mr.Ghita isn’t likely to return home any time soon. A European arrest warrant has been issued in his name as Romanian authorities are working with Interpol in trying to bring the fugitive back into the country.
Talking to the Romanian media, Sebastian Ghita has painted his case in the same light as that of Mazare and Udrea, complaining of unfair treatment from the authorities in his home country.
The former MP is facing prosecution in five criminal cases, facing accusations of bribery, blackmail and money laundering.
[This article was updated on 31/5/2018 to include the Constitutional Court ruling in the government's bid to dismiss Laura Kosevi]