SOFIA -- The European Union's chief prosecutor told Bulgarians weary of corruption that judges' independence is the most important condition for a functioning justice system.
Laura Koevesi chose Bulgaria, the EU's poorest and most corrupt country, for her first visit to a member state since the European Public Prosecutor's Office started operations on June 1.
"Only an independent judiciary can be a guarantor of justice," Koevesi told a news conference in Sofia, encouraging Bulgarians to send complaints about large-scale graft linked to misuse of EU funds directly to her office.
The European Public Prosecutor's Office is the first independent EU office with the power to investigate and prosecute crimes in members' courts that concern the misuse of EU budget funds.
"Everyone is equal in front of the law and we will make no distinction in who we will investigate ... We are here for you. We want to earn your trust for our work," Koevesi said.
She said her office had received more than 300 cases and 120 individual complaints from different countries, including Bulgaria, in the 10 days since it formally began operation.
Koevesi came to prominence as a successful anti-graft prosecutor in another corruption-ridden EU country, Romania. She was dismissed by Romania's corruption-ridden leftist government in 2018 for alleged abuse of power, something critics said was prompted by her dogged attacks on graft.
Many in Bulgaria hope that she will investigate bribery and fraud in Bulgaria and prove that the bloc is serious about rooting out misconduct across its 27 member states.
Bulgaria has yet to convict any high-level official on corruption charges.
Koevesi's visit to Sofia came amid protests by activists against Bulgarian chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev, whom they blame for refusing to investigate high-level corruption and fostering a climate of impunity.
Demonstrators chanting "Geshev is disgrace" and holding signs reading "Geshev = Mafia" waited for Koevesi at the offices of the EU commission in Sofia.
She called on the government to choose new prosecutors to join her office, after six of Bulgaria's ten nominations were rejected. She also urged Bulgarian prosecutors to hand over all ongoing investigations into major crimes that affect the EU budget.
The United States this month imposed sanctions on three Bulgarians and 64 companies linked to them over alleged corruption. Many Bulgarians welcomed the U.S. sanctions, but feel bitter that Bulgaria and the European Union failed to act first.
The EU’s existing anti-fraud office is widely considered to be weak, having only the power to recommend member states prosecute cases, but not force them to investigate. In contrast, the new prosecutor's office will be able to take high-profile cases directly to national courts.