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Laura Codruta Koevesi arrives for a hearing in Bucharest on March 7.

The European Commission has criticized Romania for backsliding on the rule of law and warned Bucharest to treat fairly Laura Koevesi, the country's former anti-corruption chief who is a front-runner to become the EU's first-ever anti-fraud prosecutor.

Romania, which currently holds the six-month rotating EU presidency, indicted Koevesi on corruption charges on March 28, prohibiting her from traveling abroad.

"It is crucial that all candidates put forward by an independent selection panel are treated fairly in the course of this process," commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a March 29 news briefing.

"We call on the Romanian government and on the Romanian authorities to fully respect the principle of sincere cooperation as enshrined in the treaty regarding the selection procedure of the European chief prosecutor," Shinas said.

"All candidates need to be able to participate in all steps of the selection procedure, unhindered," he added.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani also criticized the Romanian authorities' move. "Concerned by news that Laura Codruţa Kovesi has been placed under judicial control. @Europarl_EN stands by its candidate for European Public Prosecutor. I'll raise the issue at the EP group leaders' meeting next Wednesday," Tajani wrote on Twitter on March 29.

Koevesi ran the DNA anticorruption agency in one of the EU's most corrupt countries until she was dismissed last year by the new leftist government for alleged abuse of power.

Critics say that her dismissal was prompted by her prosecuting and indicting a record number of ministers, politicians, and other officials on corruption charges, including the leader of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, who could not become prime minister because of an abuse of office conviction.

On March 29, a newly established and controversial panel charged with investigating magistrates confirmed that Koevesi had been indicted on counts of "passive corruption, abuse of office and false testimony.

The panel, which is under the government's direct supervision, said she had been placed under a measure known as judiciary control, which is milder than house arrest or detention -- but that she had been banned from traveling abroad for 60 days.

During this time she will be banned from working in her current post at the Prosecutor-General's office as well as from leaving Romania without prosecutors' consent.

Being forbidden from leaving the country prevents her from taking part in further stages of the EU Prosecutor application process, were she required to attend in person.

Manfred Weber, the leader of the main center-right alliance in the European Parliament and a likely successor of Jean-Claude Juncker at the helm of the European Commission, on March 29 called Koevesi's indictment "totally unacceptable in Europe and unprecedented for an acting #Council presidency of the EU."

In a written reply to a question by the g4media.ro news site, the U.S. Embassy to Bucharest voiced concern about the authorities' moves against Koevesi. "Such actions violate the principles of democracy and appear to be a form of judicial harassment," the Embassy said on March 29.

Koevesi has said that she has been forbidden from talking to the media about the accusations against her.

“It's obvious that I am being targeted by a campaign of harassment and intimidation," Koevesi told reporters as she left the Bucharest police station on March 29 where she must now regularly report.

Her lawyer told Romanian media that she will challenge the measures against her in Romania's highest court. The Supreme Court is expected to decide on the case on April 3.

Koevesi was dismissed last year by the leftist government for alleged abuse of power.

Despite her dismissal, Koevesi last month earned the preliminary backing of a European Parliament committee to become the EU's first anti-fraud prosecutor. European lawmakers are now negotiating with representatives of EU member states, who support France's candidate, to decide upon the winner.

"It's a measure intended to silence me, to harass all of us in the judicial system who did our jobs," she said.

"Probably some people are in such despair that I might get this job [EU prosecutor] that I'm not allowed to speak to the media anymore."

In a related move, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has called a referendum on the leftist ruling coalition's drive to reverse anti-corruption reforms implemented over the past 12 years.

The governing coalition is largely considered as being under the control of Dragnea, who is also speaker of the lower house of parliament. Dragnea has replaced three prime ministers in a little more than two years.

The referendum will be held alongside the vote for the European Parliament on May 26, Iohannis, who is backed by the country's center-right opposition, said in a televised statement on March 28.

"It cannot go on," Iohannis said, arguing the government must be prevented from turning "corruption into state policy."

He did not elaborate on the precise question the voters would be asked.

Thousands of Romanians protested last month after the leftist government passed without any public debate an emergency measure that critics said restricted prosecutors' independence.

The move was the latest in a series of legislative and personnel changes by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) since it took power two years ago that have raised EU and U.S. concerns for the rule of law in Romania.

Written by Eugen Tomiuc with reporting by RFE/RL's Romanian Service, g4media.ro, hotnews.ro, Reuters, AFP, and dpa

Russia's communications watchdog has threatened to block access to popular VPN (virtual private network) services that give Russian Internet users access to websites outlawed by Moscow.

Russia’s strict Internet laws require search engines to delete some results, messaging services to share encryption keys with law enforcement, and social-media networks to store users' personal data on servers within the country.

A VPN can allow users to make Internet connections that aren’t monitored by authorities or to reach banned or blocked websites.

Russia's communications regulator Roskomnadzor said on March 28 that it had asked the owners of 10 VPN services to join a state information technology system that contains a registry of banned websites.

If the VPN services link to the system, their users would not be able to reach banned or blocked websites or be able to use the banned Telegram messenger service.

The Internet censor said that it had sent notifications to NordVPN, Hide My Ass!, Hola VPN, Openvpn, VyprVPN, ExpressVPN, TorGuard, IPVanish, Kaspersky Secure Connection, and VPN Unlimited.

It has given them one month to respond.

"In the cases of noncompliance with the obligations stipulated by the law, Roskomnadzor may decide to restrict access to a VPN service," it said.

Based on reporting Reuters and Interfax

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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