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Romanian Public Prosecutor Augustin Lazar

BUCHAREST -- The European Union has asked Romania's government for clarification after Bucharest effected measures that critics say will exert more political control over the judiciary.

European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said on February 20 that the commission, the EU's executive, was "following with great concern the latest developments concerning the rule of law in Romania."

Romania, which currently holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency, needs to "very urgently put the reform process back on track" and abstain "from steps which reverse progress" in fighting corruption, he told journalists in Brussels.

The Romanian government adopted emergency legislation on February 19 including a provision limiting the period of time that top prosecuting agencies can be run by acting managers. It also removes the prosecutor general's oversight of a unit tasked with investigating magistrates.

That eliminates the power of the prosecutor -- Augustin Lazar -- to dismiss an investigation by the unit into crimes allegedly committed by former chief anticorruption prosecutor Laura Koevesi.

President Klaus Iohannis, an opponent of the leftist government, said the government wants to render the justice system inefficient "for personal interests."

Laura Koevesi
Laura Koevesi

The government was "obsessed about weakening the justice system until it is longer effective," Iohannis wrote on his Facebook account late on February 19.

Romania should not be allowed to be run by people "who want to place justice under political control," he added.

Koevesi was dismissed by the government last year in what critics say was a move to prevent her anticorruption agency, the DNA, from convicting senior members of the governing alliance.

Koevesi, who has been widely praised by the EU for her results in fighting graft in one of the bloc's most corrupt countries, has emerged as a front-runner for the newly established position of EU anticorruption prosecutor.

The controversial unit tasked with investigating Romanian magistrates, which was established by the government in November in what observers say was a move to intimidate the judiciary, has opened a probe into alleged bribe-taking by Koevesi.

The emergency legislation now prevents Lazar from killing the investigation, which has been widely criticized as an attempt to smear Koevesi and prevent her from getting the EU job.

In a related development, Romanian media on February 20 published a document showing that the same investigative unit earlier this month opened a probe into accusations filed in January by a local online publication against Lazar, the European Commission's First Vice President Frans Timmermans, and other senior EU officials for "falsifying” a commission report on Romania's lack of progress on judicial reform.

With reporting by G4media.ro, AP, AFP, dpa, and luju.ro

Software giant Microsoft says it has uncovered a series of cyberattacks by hackers linked to Russia targeting democratic institutions, think tanks and nonprofit organizations in Europe, highlighting concerns of possible interference in European Union elections in May.

The attacks occurred between September and December, targeting employees of the German Council on Foreign Relations and European offices of The Aspen Institute and The German Marshall Fund, the company said in a blog post.

Microsoft said the activity targeted more than 100 employee accounts in Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, Romania, and Serbia. The attacks were discovered through Microsoft's Threat Intelligence Center and Digital Crimes Unit, the company said.

Many of the attacks originated from Strontium, one of the world's oldest cyberespionage groups, which has been previously associated with the Russian government.

Strontium has also been called APT 28, Fancy Bear, Sofancy, and Pawn Storm by a range of security firms and government officials.

Security firm CrowdStrike has said the group may be associated with the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU.

Microsoft's cybersecurity service AccountGuard will be expanded to 12 new markets in Europe including Germany, France, and Spain, to help customers secure their accounts, the company said.

The AccountGuard service will also be available in Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, and Slovakia.

The announcement comes as EU officials are bracing for attempted meddling ahead of the bloc’s elections in May, when far-right parties appear set to make gains.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, and bloomberg.com

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