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Romanian president told to fire anti-graft boss

May 31, 2018

Romania's highest court has ruled the country's president must fire the country’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor. The move has intensified fears the EU’s most corrupt member will renege on its anti-graft drive.

Head of National Anti corruption Department (DNA), Laura Codruta Kovesi
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Mihailescu

Romania's constitutional court on Wednesday ruled in a 6-3 vote that President Klaus Iohannis is constitutionally obliged to sack the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) Chief Prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi.

The court said it would explain its ruling later, without saying when, issuing the following statement.

"The president has refused to issue the dismissal decree [...] which has blocked the justice minister from using his authority related to the prosecutors' activities," the court said in a statement. "The constitutional conduct that must be followed is for the president to issue the dismissal decree."

Hundreds of people protested near the government building in Bucharest after the ruling was announced.

Iohannis, from the center-right Union to Save Romania party, has resisted calls for him to sack Kovesi, a figure widely seen as taking on the corruption endemic to Romanian public life and touching several members of the ruling social democrats (PSD). 

Read moreRomania's democracy in danger after Mihai Tudose resignation

The court had to decide whether the president was required by the constitution to implement the request of the justice minister, Tudorel Toader, to sack Kovesi. It said there had been an "institutional conflict" that needed resolving.

According to the constitution, only the president can dismiss the DNA chief.

Since their election victory in December 2016, the PSD and its junior, liberal, partner ALDE have sought to bring the judiciary under tighter executive control

Under Kovesi's leadership, the DNA investigated 60 top-ranking officials, including a prime minister and over 40 lawmakers and other wealthy Romanians over the past four years.

Liviu Dragnea, leader of the PSD, faces charges of alleged misconduct and Kovesi's office was preparing a case against him. He was given a two-year suspended sentence in 2016 for electoral fraud.

The PSD tried in early 2017 to decriminalize several corruption offenses by emergency decree but withdrew the bill after huge street protests.

Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, left, next to President Klaus Iohannis after the swearing in of her cabinet in January
Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, left, next to President Klaus Iohannis after the swearing in of her cabinet in JanuaryImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/V. Ghirda

Iohannis' reaction awaited 

"Regardless of what the court decides, I will wait for the motivation, I will read it and act accordingly," Iohannis told reporters before the decision.

Iohannis has said that Toader's reasoning for wanting to remove Kovesi contained "weak arguments" and had defended Kovesi's work as a prosecutor.

The independent judicial watchdog has also expressed a positive opinion of Kovesi and the EU has praised her work.

The EU has a special mechanism monitoring Romania's justice system.

Government praises ruling

Toader praised the ruling, saying Iohannis did not have "the legal ability to evaluate the professional and management competences of high-ranking prosecutors."

In a February report calling for Kovesi's dismissal, Toader said she was "authoritarian," claimed that prosecutors had falsified evidence and said the number of acquittals was too high.

Senate President Calin Popescu-Tariceanum said on Wednesday that Kovesi "should have resigned a long time ago."

Minister of Justice Tudorel Toader
Minister of Justice Tudorel ToaderImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Mihailescu

Opposition up in arms

The opposition party Union to Save Romania said the ruling was politically motivated and was designed to help the PSD. It said the government wants to replace Kovesi with someone more pliable.

The party said in a statement that the court's decision "deals a heavy blow to the court's credibility."

Tensions between Romania's center-right president and the center-left government reached a nadir in April when Iohannis called for the country's Prime Minister Viorica Dancila to resign.

Hundreds of Romanians have said they will attend a demonstration in Bucharest in support of Kovesi and to "defend democracy and justice," while about 108,000 people have signed an online petition calling on Iohannis not to dismiss Kovesi.

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jbh/rc (AP, AFP, Reuters)