Posted on Oct 20, 2017
How does a country strike the right balance between rigorous anti-corruption and ensuring the protection of human rights? This was the question posed by the European Parliament hearing hosted by Petras Austrevicius MEP (Lithuania, ALDE) and Rebecca Harms MEP (Germany, Greens) on Tuesday 16th October, writes James Wilson.
The meeting brought together the Chief Prosecutor of Romania’s National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), Laura Kovesi, and Artem Sytnyk the Director of the Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine to compare notes and exchange information about their experience. One key conclusion of the meeting, and this point was particularly stressed by Peter Wagner the Head of the Ukraine Support Group in the European Commission, was that Ukraine would need time to successfully conclude investigations, secure the first prosecutions and sentencing of corrupt officials by the court. In the meanwhile, it should be recognised that there was huge popular expectation to see quick results, and there was continuing pressure on the Bureau from the citizens to bag a trophy conviction. Nonetheless Mr Wagner felt that with support from many international agencies, it was impressive how quickly the Ukrainian Bureau had become operational and that they would deliver. “Much has been done in a short time to put systems in place which can start delivering results to the citizens of Ukraine,” he said.
But the experience of Romania shows that success only comes with time and sustained effort over years of thorough work; whilst they had not enjoyed a “quick win” at first, the past 10 years of operation shows that the number of prosecutions had risen from 360 in 2006 to an impressive 1271 in 2016, with the number of convictions rising from 155 to 870 during the same period. Many senior government officials had been convicted, including a former Prime Minister, 7 Ministers, 21 Members of Parliament and 5 Senators. The DNA had recovered assets of €2bn during the last 5 years between 2013 and 2017, and the agency was now acknowledged to be one of the top 5 anti-Corruption institutions in the EU. Speaking to the parliamentary hearing, Chief Prosecutor Laura Kovesi said, “The DNA will continue to enforce the law, respecting people’s rights so that equality before the law cannot be called into question.”
Romania’s commitment to anti-corruption is to be commended, but when we look beyond the statistics, there are still issues and lessons which Ukraine would be well advised to take into account in their operational procedures in order to avoid some of the pitfalls and criticisms that Romania’s DNA has faced. For example, at the hearing, Maria Grapini MEP (Romania, ASD) drew attention to the fact that many suspects under investigation by the DNA in Romania faced long periods of pre-trial detention before any charges were brought against them, and before they could enjoy a free and fair trial. In Germany the maximum period of pre-trial detention without charges being brought against suspects is 6 months, but in Romania in some cases this is taking several years. Such practice runs against the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, which provides for the right to a fair trial for suspects within a reasonable period of time.
Other problems that Romania has faced include the intelligence services infiltrating the judiciary and the prosecution, leading to the accused losing faith in the objectiveness and fairness of the process. Some suspects have been paraded before the media before any charges have been brought, and their relatives threatened with indictment. Some of these Romanian problems were highlighted at a hearing of the Helsinki Commission held in Washington DC under the Chairmanship of Senator Roger Wicker in June. The Senator spoke about how Romania was held up as an example for Ukraine to follow but then he and the commission heard testimony that there were 5 areas of specific concern.
Firstly there had been politicisation of justice in Romania. There had often been a strong correlation between those targeted for prosecution and the interests of the ruling government; cases had sometimes been accompanied by black PR campaigns designed to destroy political reputations. Secondly there had been collusion between prosecutors and the executive. The rule of law requires a separation of powers in which prosecutors act independently of the executive. Thirdly there are suspicions that the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) has infiltrated the judiciary and the prosecution services. Fourthly there is lack of judicial independence, which has been undermined by tactics of intimidation of judges who fail to do the DNA’s bidding, and reward of those deemed friendly to its interests.
Finally there have been abuses of process by anticorruption prosecutors, for example leaking evidence to the media to preclude a fair hearing in court. The infringements of human rights taking place under the banner of anti-corruption spoil the DNA’s reputation and are issues that need to be addressed as the Ukrainian Anti-corruption Bureau sets up its own processes and operation mechanisms.
At the Brussels European Parliament hearing, Rebecca Harms said that it was important to “Learn from the processes and avoid mistakes. We need to learn what the institutions need to deliver on their mandate to serve the citizens.”
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