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Romania Lifts Travel Ban Against Ex-Antigraft Chief Amid EU Warnings


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
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