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Laura Koevesi speaks to the media in Bucharest on March 29.

Romania's highest court has revoked special measures introduced against former anticorruption chief Laura Koevesi, a front-runner to become the EU's first-ever top prosecutor, who last week was indicted on corruption charges by a controversial agency.

The move came amid a flurry of statements from European Union officials and Western diplomats warning the leftist government in Bucharest against its continuing push to reverse judicial reforms and scupper Koevesi’s chances to get the newly established EU job.

"My appeal was admitted. I can now leave Romania," Koevesi told reporters on April 3 after the Supreme Court reversed several special judicial measures, including a ban on leaving the country without prosecutors' consent.

Koevesi ran Romania’s anticorruption agency, known as the DNA, until she was dismissed last year by the new leftist government for alleged abuse of power.

Observers saw Koevesi's dismissal as an attempt to sideline her after the DNA's conviction rates for high-level graft jumped across the political spectrum during her tenure in Romania, drawing EU and U.S. praise.

Koevesi's impressive track record in one of the EU's most corrupt countries also brought her to the forefront of the selection process for the bloc's newly established position of chief anticorruption prosecutor, where she is competing against French magistrate Jean-Francois Bohnert.

But on March 29, Koevesi was indicted in Romania on counts of bribery, abuse of office, and false testimony, prohibiting her from traveling abroad -- a move condemned by the European Union. The indictment was brought forward by a newly established and controversial panel charged with investigating magistrates that is under the government’s direct supervision.

Interdiction to leave the country would have prevented Koevesi from taking part in further stages of the selection process for EU prosecutor, were she required to attend in person.

"There are some other prosecutors attacked on a daily basis. We're all going through these campaigns because there are some who want to steal undisturbed and we are not letting them," Koevesi said early on April 3 before the court decision on her appeal was announced.

"We have nothing to be afraid of. It will be proven that all these accusations against us, prosecutors and judges, are groundless," she added.

Prior to the court ruling, top EU officials rebuked Bucharest, which is currently holding the bloc’s six-month rotating presidency, for backsliding on the rule of law, and told it to treat Koevesi fairly.

"Romania urgently needs to put the reform process back on track -- this means going forward, not backwards, and refraining from any steps which reverse the progress accomplished over the past years," European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans said.

"I want to warn against any governmental action that would disrupt the Romanian judicial system by creating a systemic, de facto impunity for high-office holders who were sentenced for corruption. Such a move would compel the commission to act swiftly," Timmermans added.

Timmermans did not elaborate, but a senior EU official confirmed to RFE/RL under condition of anonymity that "all options are on the table," including "infringement procedures" and launching Article 7 procedures similar to those leveled against Hungary and Poland -- a process that could lead to a country losing its voting rights in the bloc's council.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, meanwhile, said on April 3 that Romanian officials should not "put in place obstacles" to Koevesi's candidacy for the position of EU chief prosecutor and that Koevesi "remains our candidate and continues to enjoy our respect and our support."

Critics have alleged that Koevesi's dismissal was meant to prevent the DNA from targeting more senior members of the governing alliance, including the leader of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea.

The PSD-led governing coalition has reportedly long been planning two emergency decrees altering judicial legislation, which some say are aimed at scuppering Dragnea’s definitive conviction for abuse of office in 2012 and abandon a second case against him.

Dragnea’s conviction has prevented him from becoming prime minister and forced him to settle for the position of speaker of the lower house of parliament.

The two planned decrees and other measures to reverse anticorruption reforms have prompted massive protests in Romania over the past two years, including one in August 2018 in Bucharest that was violently repressed by authorities.

Amid reports that the government was preparing to sneak in the decrees without prior notice during a meeting on April 3, the embassies of the United States, Canada, and 10 EU member states including France and Germany issued a joint appeal to Bucharest to scrap the measures.

The warnings come as the leftist government of the EU and NATO member, besides increasingly anti-EU rhetoric, has also adopted measures against foreign banks that critics say are harming Romania's economic credibility.

A so-called "tax on greed" meant to impose extra taxation on foreign banks and the energy sector was watered down only after repeated warnings from Romania's Western business partners.

On April 1, the Senate voted to repatriate 95 percent of Romania's gold reserves, currently held in Bank of England vaults, after the authorities argued that other countries like Germany, Hungary, Austria, and the Netherlands had moved their gold closer to home.

Dragnea, one of the co-authors of the measure, argued that Romania had a stable economy and there was no reason to pay for keeping its gold abroad.

The cost for holding Romania's 104 tons of gold in Britain is $74,000 annually, while only the insurance costs for its repatriation would amount to up to 20 times more.

The government, however, could be in for a tough fight as Romania’s central bank has come out strongly against the proposed legislation.

With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels, RFE/RL's Romanian Service, G4media.ro, AFP, and Reuters
Is the uncompleted tower the symbol of a "golden age" -- or political corruption?

SOFIA -- It's been billed by its Bulgarian developer as the "beginning of a modern golden age" -- an "iconic sign" that will take Bulgaria "into the future as a truly dignified European country."

But now, with the Golden Century skyscraper caught up in a real-estate scandal that involves members of the ruling GERB party, it is unclear whether Arteks Engineering will be able to finish the 34-story luxury tower in Sofia.

The future of the project depends upon a court ruling on one key issue: Did Arteks' construction permits expire in 2017, as opponents of the project maintain? Or were the permits automatically renewed in January 2017, when GERB lawmakers amended Bulgaria's construction code?

Arteks argues that GERB's amendment to the Spatial Planning Act means their permit is valid until 2020 and that they can continue work on what is meant to be one of the tallest buildings in Bulgaria.

The firm cites a 2017 letter from GERB member Valentin Yovev, the deputy minister of regional development and public works.

In that letter, Yovev told Sofia municipal officials that the duration of Arteks' permits should be extended as a result of GERB's changes to the construction code.

An artist's rendition of what Sofia's Golden Century tower is meant to look like if construction is completed.
An artist's rendition of what Sofia's Golden Century tower is meant to look like if construction is completed.

But since March 22, when joint investigative reporting by RFE/RL and Bulgaria's nongovernmental Anticorruption Fund began to uncover suspicious real-estate deals between Arteks and GERB politicians, officials in Sofia have stepped back from declaring that Arteks' permits are still valid.

The Regional Development and Public Works Ministry has not answered RFE/RL's enquiries about Yovev's letter or whether it considers the skyscraper project in Sofia's Lozenets neighborhood to be legal.

Aleksander Nenkov, a parliament deputy from GERB who wrote the amendment to the construction code, said in late March that the amendment did not apply retroactively to the Golden Century project.

But Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova has said that "the question of whether construction is legal is not that simple."

Sofia's chief architect, Zdravko Zdravkov, says the Golden Century construction permit expired in November 2017 and has not been renewed. The same argument is being made by Marian Bashur, a neighborhood resident who formed the Lozenets Initiative Committee to protest against Arteks' ongoing construction work.

Bashur told RFE/RL on April 3 that his protest group was infuriated by Bulgaria's Directorate for National Construction Control, Sofia's city administration, the Regional Development Ministry, and parliament. "We are very angry at these four institutions because they can't tell us whether the construction of a building is legal or not," he said. "Now they tell us that there is a court case and they are waiting for the decision."

"We have been protesting against this project since 2017," Bashur added, noting that RFE/RL's investigative reports on GERB real-estate deals had made the complaints of his group "more visible to the public."

Political Scandal

Four members of the GERB's ruling coalition have resigned from office amid a criminal investigation into lucrative real-estate deals they made with Arteks after party lawmakers amended the construction code in early 2017.

They include GERB Deputy Chairman Tsvetan Tsvetanov, who resigned from parliament, former Justice Minister Tsetska Tsacheva, former Deputy Energy Minister Krasimir Parvanov, and former Deputy Sports Minister Vanya Koleva.

The Prosecutor-General's Office in Sofia and Bulgaria's Anticorruption Commission are investigating the terms of their real-estate deals with Arteks.

RFE/RL found that they had all bought luxury apartments from Arteks since the beginning of 2018 at prices that were 30 percent to more than 50 percent cheaper than the market value.

The focus of the criminal investigation includes the origins of the funds the politicians used in their purchases, potential trading in influence, and conflict of interest in the passage of legislation.

Arteks is also being investigated for its potential links to political parties, its party donations, and its participation in public procurement.

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague with reporting by Polina Paunova and Ivaylo Vezenkov of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service in Sofia

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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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