Among the thousands of placards on display over the last two weeks of mass anti-government protests in Romania – the largest the country has seen in a quarter of a century – are many that read “Hands off DNA”, a reference to Romania’s national anti-corruption directorate, or DNA for short.
The agency, which was founded in 2003, has been at the forefront of the country’s fight against official misconduct, and with the government’s recent moves to decriminalise certain types of low-level corruption, many on the streets have rallied to the agency’s defence.
Sitting in her Bucharest office just a mile from the main protest site, DNA’s chief prosecutor, Laura Codruţa Kövesi, who has increasingly become the face of Romania’s anti-corruption efforts, explains the issues at stake.
“Since Emergency Ordinance 13 was adopted, every day is a risk for the justice system,” Kövesi said. The ordinance, which was passed in a late-night session by Sorin Grindeanu’s new government on 31 January, effectively decriminalised official misconduct in which the financial damage was less than 200,000 lei (£38,000). It was then repealed, but only after hundreds of thousands took to the streets in opposition. Few believe the government has permanently backed down, and protests have continued.
Kövesi, whose quiet demeanour belies the storm she regularly whips up among the rich and powerful, says the dangers for anti-corruption efforts haven’t diminished.
“From my point of view the risk hasn’t been changed,” she said. “People who have the jurisdiction, who have the ability to amend the legislation, are saying now that there will be several additional amendments. I don’t think we can be at peace.”
Romania has long been plagued by corruption, but since joining the EU the country has made significant strides in dealing with the issue. Despite these efforts, it remains a major concern.
Part of the anger felt by those who have taken to the streets in recent weeks comes from the fact that many Romanian politicians in office are currently facing corruption investigations, or have already been indicted or convicted of crimes. There are worries that these latest moves by the government are simply attempts to protect the political class at the expense of the common people.
“The most important thing is that Romanians feel that nobody is above the law, and we need to maintain this,” said Kövesi, her office walls adorned with religious imagery as well as colourful paintings by a niece. “We must not pass laws that favour those who commit serious crimes.”
In total, 18 ministers from governments that have been in power in Romania since 2004 have been charged or convicted, as well as thousands of lower-level politicians, media moguls, judges and businesspeople.
The current presidents of the chamber of deputies and the senate, two of the top three political positions in the country, are awaiting trial; Liviu Dragnea, the social democrat leader, also has a previous conviction for electoral fraud, issued in 2015. That same year the then prime minister, Victor Ponta, was charged with forgery, money laundering and being an accessory to tax evasion, the first time in Romania’s history that a prime minister had been indicted. His trial continues.
Most of these people were brought down, at least in part, by DNA investigations. “I do believe DNA is helping to create a new Romania, and I believe this is part of the reason DNA has had such good results, because the team working within DNA believes in this,” said Kövesi. “We are people who want to change the country, to live in a cleaner country.”
At the same time, DNA has faced regular criticism, mostly for the agency’s reliance on wiretaps, which critics compare to the tactics of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s repressive regime.
“We completely abide by the law in everything we do,” Kövesi said. “All wiretaps are conducted following authorisation issued by a judge, and the president of the high court of cassation and justice periodically verifies the method and how we implement these authorisations.”
She adds that anyone who thought DNA broke the law could approach those authorities.
While many of those on the street have expressed anger and frustration that Romania hasn’t progressed enough in the 27 years since the fall of Ceaușescu, Kövesi sees strong progress for the country, and is determined to make sure it doesn’t go to waste.
“I think the justice system has changed profoundly and of course that leads to changes across society,” she says. “September 15, 1995, was my first day of work as a prosecutor. At the time prosecutors weren’t independent, now we are. At that time there weren’t any investigations involving ministers or members of parliament. The law wasn’t equal for everybody.”
Kövesi, who before taking over DNA in 2013 was the youngest general prosecutor in Romania’s history, as well as the first woman to hold the job, has become an increasingly visible public figure at home and abroad. Last year she was made a knight of the French Legion of Honour for her work.
“There is a great visibility,” she said. “From a certain point of view it is an honour, but at the same time it leads to great expectations, and the challenge now is to meet these expectations – not to be a disappointment.”
Regarding the support DNA has received from those protesting, she smiled and said: “If we are praised or criticised, we must do our job.”
With anti-government protests set to continue, and with little trust remaining between the government and large sections of society, it could take a while for the country to heal its self-inflicted wounds.
Kövesi sees transparency as one of the most important things in helping to bridge the divide. “Constitutional principles must be respected, and any legal amendments should be passed only after a serious debate, and transparently,” she said.
Meanwhile she is adamant about what any setback related to anti-corruption legislation means for the country. “Without efficient and independent justice we can’t speak about rule of law in a meaningful way.”
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