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Moldova Must Stop Mixing Politics And Prosecutions

Former Defense Minister Valeriu Pasat on trial in Chisinau in 2005.
Former Defense Minister Valeriu Pasat on trial in Chisinau in 2005.
Whatever the outcome of the current maneuvering and machinations between the Communists and the opposition over the election of a new Moldovan president, when the dust settles the country's leaders will need urgently to find a way to return civility and respect to domestic politics.

Following the mob violence in the wake of the April parliamentary elections that led to the torching of the parliament building and a brutal overreaction by the police, politics in Moldova has taken on a sadly Hobbsian cast. A poisonous atmosphere -- which has been developing for many years -- means that compromise is no longer possible and repeat elections appear inevitable.

The political class in Chisinau nonetheless remains insular and most members of the outgoing parliament won reelection. For the country to get on track and seriously pursue the long-promised and oft-postponed reforms required to produce a healthy, modern European state, national reconciliation is vital.

One way to start this process is to put an end to the selective prosecutions of political opponents that has so sullied Moldova's legal system and international reputation.

When I was a prosecutor working in New York City for the legendary District Attorney Robert Morganthau, every morning I would take the elevator, packed with law enforcement agents, up to my office. The elevator doors would open and the first thing one saw was an old poster of Morganthau's predecessor, Frank Hogan.

I can still picture it clearly in my mind's eye: a black-and-white photograph of the kindly, wizened, but enormously powerful former chief prosecutor with a bold caption below that warned, "You Don't Play Politics With People's Lives."

Every assistant district attorney saw this image and this simple message every day, and it was a profound reminder of both the power and responsibility of handling the people's case in a criminal prosecution. Although the New York district attorney is elected by popular vote, the office's tradition, which dates back 75 years, is that politics should never be a factor in deciding whether to charge a crime; the prosecutor's job is to protect the public and administer the laws fairly.

Playing Politics

All too frequently in Moldova, criminal accusations and the great weight of law enforcement are deployed in ways that seem more targeted toward advancing someone's particular political or financial agenda than toward keeping society safe. This erodes confidence in the legal system, saps morale among police and prosecutors, and ultimately undermines the legitimacy of the entire political process.

Procedural irregularities in investigation and prosecution, which are also frequent in Moldova, are just as dangerous as substantive ones, as they belie the entire notion of a fair system that permits a real and robust defense.

A recent incident indicates that this approach still constitutes a reflexive business-as-usual. Chisinau Mayor Dorin Chirtoaca recently visited the United States to meet with officials and nongovernmental organizations, and to speak publicly and emotionally about the Liberal Party of Moldova's view of the events that followed the April 5 elections.

Barely a week after Chirtoaca's return to Moldova, the Moldovan Prosecutor-General's Office, through the municipal prosecutor, demanded an explanation of the scope of his visit, its results, and -- most ominously -- who paid for it. Chirtoaca's answer was that just $36 of the total cost of the trip came from the mayoralty's coffers.

This inquiry was probably just another attempt to rattle a young, reformist leader. But once again we see the instinct in Moldova to swiftly criminalize what are political differences among elected officials. This perpetuates an unhealthy cycle that goes back many years and involves politicians of all stripes.

For example, in September 2006, Ion Musuc and his son, Eduard, were accused of fraudulently churning collateral to the tune of 2 million Moldovan lei ($155,836). At that time, the elder Musuc was the head of the opposition Social Democratic Party and Eduard Musuc was a member of its leadership and the former director of the successful Internet provider Megadat. Ion Musuc fled Moldova when the case was made public, while his son was arrested on charges punishable by 10 to 25 years in prison.

Bail was set and rescinded several times until in April 2007, the court dismissed the accusation for lack of a substantive basis. Musuc took his case to the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR), and in November 2007 was awarded 12,000 euros ($17,590) for moral suffering and legal fees in connection with what the court termed his "illegal detention."

Ending Political Prosecutions

Another former opposition mayor of Chisinau, Serafim Urechean, was pressured and discredited with a criminal case, along with his top officials, in the notorious "ambulance affair." Urechean and his team were accused of financial improprieties in the acquisition of 40 ambulances for the city in a process that lasted from June 2004 until the case was finally closed in February 2009. Several of the subordinates were held in prison -- one for more than a year -- and they too applied to the ECHR, winning tens of thousands of euros from the Moldovan government.

The extensive list of such politicized disputes includes the criminal case against the chairman of the board of directors of Victoriabank and his attorney (another loss for Moldova in the ECHR, this time costing taxpayers nearly 10,000 euros); the multiple criminal actions against the opposition leader in Gagauzia, Mikhail Formuzal; and the infamous "MiG case" against former Defense Minister Valeriu Pasat.

Moldova needs to break with its tradition of politicized prosecutions and "telephone justice." If snap parliamentary elections do take place, how about a pledge by all parties that, if elected, they will establish an independent review and advisory commission within the prosecutor's office that will have final jurisdiction over any case initiated against, or affecting, a political figure in Moldova?

This group could receive special training and financing to assure its independence and could contain a civil-society oversight component, working, of course, under conditions of strictest confidentiality. It could even be backed up by advice and hands-on assistance from the European Commission as part of Moldova's ongoing efforts at European integration.

This is not a perfect solution and cannot take the place of personal rectitude and political restraint. But it would still be an important step toward establishing independent prosecutors, emboldening the judiciary to be more autonomous, and, step-by-step, promoting the checks and balances in government from which all civil protections flow.

Louis O'Neill was the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's ambassador and head of mission to Moldova in 2006-08. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL