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A memorial in Caracal to remember Alexandra Macesanu, a 15-year-old girl who was murdered.

BUCHAREST -- Massive street protests and stern warnings from the European Union and U.S. State Department were not enough to stop a controversial overhaul of the Romanian legal system that would have weakened the fight against corruption.

But outrage over the kidnapping and grisly killing of a teenage girl led to a Romanian high court verdict that finally proved enough to halt the government's drive to pass the legal changes.

The Constitutional Court had delayed issuing a ruling a record seven times on the controversial reforms that critics -- including Brussels and Washington -- said undermined the rule of law in Romania and rolled back democratic reforms of previous years.

In the end the court's hand was forced by public outrage after the abduction and killing of a second teenager in the southern town of Caracal, where a weak police response and mishandling of the case exposed the potential effects of the ruling Social Democrats' so-called reforms.

The court ruled on July 29 -- after two days of massive protests over the handling of a 15-year-old schoolgirl’s disappearance and eventual killing -- that the changes were unconstitutional, sending them back to parliament for debate based on the court's recommendations.

Protests Across Romania

The verdict by the court puts pressure on the ruling alliance and could lead to it accepting input from civil society and magistrates who have been extremely critical of the proposed changes they say make it harder to do their jobs.

Thousands of people protested in Caracal, Bucharest, and other cities on July 27-28, outraged that it took the authorities 19 hours to locate and enter the premises where kidnapped Alexandra Macesanu made three desperate calls to the country's emergency number on July 25 begging to be rescued as they waited for a search warrant -- even though it isn’t legally required for life-threatening emergencies.

Alexandra Macesanu
Alexandra Macesanu

Macesanu's uncle even released a transcript of one of the phone calls in which the responder tells the schoolgirl to get off the line because she is blocking it for other emergency calls.

At the end of the call Macesanu yells, "He's here, he's here!" as the line falls silent. In a later call to the emergency line she said she had been beaten and raped.

Officials confirmed on August 3 that DNA from the remains of a body found behind the building in which Macesanu had allegedly been kept matched hers.

Claudiu Sandu, a top prosecutor from the city of Brasov, told G4Media that police may have been intimidated by the legal changes that the Social Democrat-led government had proposed after they came to power in 2017.

"I believe that if we hadn’t had these [proposed] legislative changes, which weakened the way prosecutors act, criminals hadn’t felt free to roam and [the authorities] would have acted differently," he said.

At the protests and vigils for the young girl, people held up placards saying "I am Alexandra" and "Hello 112, I am Romania. Save me."

WATCH: Protesters March In Bucharest Over Slow Response By Police To Teen's Kidnapping, Murder

Protesters March In Bucharest Over Slow Response By Police To Teen's Kidnapping, Murder
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At the same time, the mother and grandmother of 18-year-old Luiza Melencu -- the other girl who the suspect in the case, Gheorghe Dinca, has reportedly claimed to have abducted and killed in April -- also expressed anguish at the way they had been treated.

Relatives said they were told Melencu was 18 and therefore an adult and it was suggested she had "gone off with her Prince Charming." They said they were also dismissed in calls to police seeking new information in the search for Luiza.

Political analyst Cristian Parvulescu said the authorities' response to the disappearances was "an expression of the incapacity of the state and the failure of the so-called judicial reforms, which affected the way justice and public order institutions function."

Parvulescu, the dean of the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration, told RFE/RL that violence against women was inadmissibly tolerated in Romania. "This is a patriarchal society."

Questions about Romania's patchy public transportation network across the country was also raised, as there are reports that both girls had hitched a ride with Dinca before being abducted.

Political Fallout

Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, under pressure to act, immediately called for a referendum about tougher sentences for murderers, rapists, and pedophiles.

Her call has been widely mocked, including by President Klaus Iohannis, since the prime minister has no authority to call a referendum.

As the story of the girls' disappearances dominated the headlines, new Interior Minister Nicolae Moga fired the chief police officer, Ioan Buda, on July 26 (Buda was named as head of the border police five days later) and dismissed local police chiefs before the minister himself stepped down on July 30, apparently at Dancila's request after only six days on the job.

The head of the country's Special Telecommunications Service (STS) also resigned over the case. The STS is responsible for operating software and communications during elections, and Romania's presidential election is scheduled for later this year.

Ecaterina Andronescu was fired after her comments were seen as insensitive.
Ecaterina Andronescu was fired after her comments were seen as insensitive.

The fallout from the case continued on August 2, when Dancila fired Education Minister Ecaterina Andronescu for making insensitive remarks, saying that she had been brought up not to get in a car with a stranger.

Dancila has proposed party colleague Mihai Fifor, a former defense minister, to the post of interior minister.

"There will be no mercy, no exceptions, no compromises, and no delays: I declare a war against crime," Dancila said on July 31. "People's anger these days is justified. But Romanians should not be afraid. Our country does not belong to criminals, rapists, pedophiles, and human traffickers."

But Iohannis remarked, "The government should ask if it was not the moral author of this tragedy."

The president called a meeting of the Supreme Defense Council, the country's top security body, on July 30 to discuss the issue with the prime minister, intelligence chiefs, and other security officials.

"The modification of judicial laws, a wave of retirements in [departments] of public order and national security, and early parole have resulted in grave consequences for people's safety," he said after the meeting. "One of the main causes of 'de-professionalization' is appointing people based on political criteria, not [for reasons of] competence."

Some of the changes proposed by the Social Democrats included shortening prison sentences for people over 65, precisely the age of Dinca, who along with his alleged confession has reported being beaten. It is also close to the age of some would-be suspects in corruption cases.

Early parole favors criminals and makes it more difficult for law enforcement, critics of the changes say.

The Initiative for Justice, a prosecutors' professional association, said the changes meant that surveillance cameras wouldn't necessarily be admitted as evidence in court, while negligence in the workplace has been decriminalized, meaning officials would not face legal action over the mishandling of cases.

Protesters in recent days say they feel less safe on Romanian streets following the downsizing of the country's police force. The government reduced police patrol officers in 2018 by some 3 percent.

It also offered early retirement to judges. Both measures were seen as an attempt by the current ruling coalition to get rid of seasoned professionals and have them replaced with more submissive judges and police officers.

Former Justice Minister Tudorel Toader confirmed that almost 11,000 prisoners had been granted early release from October 2017 to November 2018, including for reasons such as their cells were too small or unhygienic.

By January, a total of 188 of those released had been convicted again of a crime and put back behind bars after committing violent crimes such as rape, attempted murder, and murder.

Dancila is seeking to present her government as more reform-minded since Social Democrat leader and lower-house speaker Liviu Dragnea began serving a 3 1/2-year sentence for corruption in May.

Dancila has been selected as the party's candidate in the presidential election later this year, running against the center-right Iohannis.

There has also been renewed criticism about a special department created solely to investigate magistrates, which critics say discourages and intimidates prosecutors.

The Venice Commission, an advisory body on constitutional matters for the Council of Europe, said the section "risks being an obstacle to the fight against corruption and organized crime."

Prosecutor Sandu said, "In my opinion, if something like this [case of Macesanu] had happened four or five years ago, police would have gone in [to the building where she was being held] immediately even at three in the morning to try and save the child."

"Now, [the authorities] don't go in anywhere if it's not explicitly written down because they are scared."

Observers also note that there are hundreds of missing girls in Romania, with some of the cases more than a decade old. They also point to a police force often acting with incompetence and with some of its members purported to have ties to criminal gangs often working in human trafficking.​

On August 2, G4Media issued the results of an investigation that claimed some known criminal gangs and its leaders in the Caracal region are connected to the Social Democrats.

With reporting by Eugen Tomiuc in Prague
Nina Bahinskaya is a celebrity of sorts among activists.

MINSK -- Holding a bamboo pole with a red-striped white banner, the banned flag of the first independent Belarusian state, she faces a line of black-clad police officers staring down from a flight of stone steps.

The 2006 photograph transformed Nina Bahinskaya, now a pensioner and great-grandmother, into a celebrity of sorts among activists -- an endangered species in Belarus, ruled since 1994 by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who tolerates little dissent in the nation of some 9.5 million.

"Today, some may laugh at it, some may dismiss it, and some may not pay any attention at all. But in the future, that image will still be there," said Zmitser Dashkevich, leader of the opposition group Malady Front (Youth Front). "That photograph of Nina Bahinskaya with the flag will be part of Belarus's recent history. Not all these political parties, but Nina Bahinskaya with the flag in her hand."

Nina Bahinskaya facing down a line of policemen in 2006
Nina Bahinskaya facing down a line of policemen in 2006

Bahinskaya has been protesting for decades and took part in some of the first demonstrations in what was then the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic that helped nudge the Soviet Union closer over the precipice.

The frail retiree, who lives in a modest apartment in Minsk, said she had no choice but to protest.

"I was motivated by all the injustice -- social, political, and national. And I said: 'If you're not a coward, if you're not a slave, then you should defend your country and homeland," she said in a recent interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

Waving The Flag

Bahinskaya rarely heads out for demonstrations without her flag, the white-red-white symbol of the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic, which existed for about a year in 1918-19. It was also the official flag of modern Belarus for the country's first five years of independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But it was dumped four years later by Lukashenka, a former state-farm chief who has used nostalgia for the perceived security, law, and order of the Soviet era as one of his tools for staying in power.

In 1995, he pushed through a controversial referendum that among other things changed state symbols, replacing the flag with one that is essentially the Soviet-era version -- minus the hammer and sickle.

The red-and-white flag was picked up by the country's pro-democracy opposition, becoming a powerful symbol. Officially banned by authorities, the flag was frequently confiscated by police at demonstrations in the past -- although they have changed tactics in recent years, according to Bahinskaya.

"Up until 2014, they would confiscate flags, then they started to snap them in two and take them away. But from 2016, the coffers were empty, I guess, so they stopped confiscating the flags, and started issuing fines instead," Bahinskaya said with a smile, holding a tiny first republic flag that she says rarely leaves her side.

Stalinist Repression Spawns An Activist

Bahinskaya, a former employee at Minsk's Geology Institute, first took to the streets in 1988, when one of the greatest crimes committed in Belarus under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was first revealed to the wider public.

Historians say that between 1937 and 1941, a period of mass killings and political persecution, the Soviet secret police -- the NKVD -- carried out large-scale executions in a wooded area outside Minsk called Kurapaty.

The tragedy remained shrouded in Soviet secrecy until 1988, when a Belarus historian and one of the founders of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front exposed what had happened.

Appearing during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost era, the newspaper article by Zyanon Paznyak and Yauhen Shmyhaleu sparked some of the first protests in the Soviet Union and gave a boost to the pro-democracy and pro-independence movement in Belarus in the waning days of the U.S.S.R.

Bahinskaya brandishes Belarus's illegal flag in Minsk in 2016
Bahinskaya brandishes Belarus's illegal flag in Minsk in 2016

Infuriated by the article, Bahinskaya says she took part in one of those first protests in Minsk on October 30, 1988, coinciding with Dziady, an ancient Slavic feast day to commemorate the dead. Police cracked down on the unauthorized gathering, using tear gas, batons, and water cannon to disperse the crowd.

"I was horrified by this Soviet lie: 'Everything for the people.' And because the people wanted to commemorate their national holiday, Dziady, these troops were dispatched and they dispersed us."

An investigation conducted from 1988 to 1995 established that Kurapaty contained the remains of 220,000 to 250,000 people, who were identified as victims of Stalin's political terror.

Instead of embracing the findings, the state tried to downplay them and muddy the waters over who was responsible.

A government commission later revised the number of victims, first to 30,000 and then to 7,000.

Years Of Protests, Years Of Arrests

For Bahinskaya, it was the start of what would turn into a lifetime of speaking out against injustice, and in the past few years alone she has had plenty of her own brushes with the law in a country whose government has little tolerance for protest and dissent.

In 2014, Bahinskaya was detained by police for setting fire to the flag of the defunct Soviet Union outside the headquarters of the KGB, as the main state security agency is still called in Belarus, at a protest over Russia's interference in neighboring Ukraine.

In 2015, she was arrested again, this time for taking part in a ceremony for Mikhail Zhyzneuski, a Belarusian man who was one of the first protesters killed during the Euromaidan demonstrations that pushed a Moscow-friendly Ukrainian president from power in Kyiv the previous year.

Russia responded by seizing Crimea and supporting militant separatists in eastern Ukraine, actions that have led to concern in Belarus about the Kremlin's intentions toward Russia's small western neighbor.

Bahinskaya gets hauled away by police in 2017.
Bahinskaya gets hauled away by police in 2017.

In 2017, Bahinskaya was again hauled away by police, this time for joining a demonstration in front of KGB headquarters "to support arrested patriots" -- a reference to 20 opposition activists accused of planned armed mayhem across Belarus, an allegation that supporters said was groundless.

The claims by Lukashenka's government came amid mass demonstrations across the country against a planned tax on the unemployed.

Bahinskaya's most recent run-in with law enforcement came in April, when she got caught up in a scuffle between activists and police at the Kurapaty memorial site as heavy machinery was brought in to remove white crosses erected by activists in a straight line among the fir trees. She was among activists briefly detained.

Activists Awed

With her dedication and focus, Bahinskaya has earned the respect of activists in Belarus, many of whom are awed by her refusal to accept help, especially to contend with the mountain of fines she faces.

"Nina Bahinskaya refuses all [offers of] help. She doesn't take it from friends, acquaintances, or various human rights organizations, saying that paying fines for taking part in all the protests…is her sacrifice, her burden, her struggle with this anti-Belarusian government, and that she should contend with it by herself," said Hanna Shaputko, the coordinator of an initiative to preserve the Kurapaty memorial.

Bahinskaya has refused to pay the fines, reasoning, "Why fill the coffers and pay for the police, courts, and prosecutors."

She figures the amount of fines has now mounted into thousands of dollars.

"I stopped counting when it passed 35,000 rubles [about $17,000]."

She brushes aside concerns from friends and others worried about the treatment she has endured by the authorities.

"People ask, 'How do you cope with this?' I tell them I'm like an athlete going for a Guinness record for fines. Then a lot of times they go quiet, tears appear, but I tell them: 'Don't worry. Those in power will not be there forever. The worse things are, the better -- the sooner people will understand what is going on here.'"

Written by Tony Wesolowsky, based on reporting by Valeriya Ulasik and Alena Shalayeva of Current Time in Minsk

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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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