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Romania Wrestles With Balance Under Coronavirus State Of Emergency

A Romanian police officer checks the travel documents of a man on the southern outskirts of Bucharest on April 3.
A Romanian police officer checks the travel documents of a man on the southern outskirts of Bucharest on April 3.

BUCHAREST -- It’s a familiar sight in Romania this month: police and military officials stopping cars to check whether motorists and passengers are carrying compulsory written statements that justify their trip.

Offenders risk a fine of at least 1,000 lei (207 euros).

Most people quickly comply with the measure, which is part of a military ordinance introduced during the month-old state of emergency decreed by President Klaus Iohannis, who extended it for another month on April 14.

Romania’s center-right government has followed with tight restrictions on people’s movements and deployed military troops to patrol the streets to help halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, which by April 16 had sickened more than 7,700 people and killed nearly 400 in this southeastern European country of around 19 million.

But not all has gone as smoothly as most of the roadside checks.

There have been scattered accusations of official infringements on individual rights and freedoms since authorities were given sweeping powers under the state of emergency.

In one case, video was posted to social media of a police officer in Bucharest punching a man who was violating the 10 p.m. curfew on April 7 and refused to show police his identity papers. Bucharest police say they have begun an internal inquiry into the incident.

“There is a risk and temptation of abuse in this situation," Cristian Parvulescu, dean of the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration, a public university in the capital, told RFE/RL. "Police and gendarmes see themselves as the bosses.”

He said Iohannis had been forced to adopt the state of emergency "under pressure from experts because [lockdown] recommendations weren’t being respected."

Without the emergency measure, Parvulescu suggested, Romanian officials are largely helpless "to impose certain things."

“Unlike the Netherlands and Sweden, there is another political culture here," he added. "Measures need to be imposed categorically, like in Suceava, and [other] places where the civil administration proved to be absolutely incompetent."

'No Tanks On The Streets'

Although Prime Minister Ludovic Orban had vowed there would be “no tanks on the streets,” the northern city of Suceava has been put under a strict lockdown, with police and troops on patrol, since an outbreak at that city's hospital accounted for about one-third of Romania’s coronavirus cases.

Tandarei, town of around 12,000 in southeastern Romania that gained international notoriety for child trafficking and other cross-border crime, is under a strict lockdown enforced by military troops since 800 residents flouted quarantine orders after returning from Western Europe.

Locals were refusing to stay at home and observe social distancing, instead gathering at parties and barbecues that could spread the highly contagious coronavirus, before the arrival of soldiers.

In some places, there have been allegations of police overstepping their authority and taking photos of people’s personal details, a violation of privacy rules, according to Monica Macovei, a veteran rights activist and former justice minister who is now in the European Parliament.

“I haven’t seen sanctions applied to decision makers or senior or junior officials," Macovei told RFE/RL. "Yesterday, I saw that police were photographing people’s statements with their personal phones, an inadmissible and unforgivable thing."

Even if police don’t have the tools at hand to check that people are complying with restrictions, she said, “nothing justifies retaining people’s private details in their personal phones."

Macovei said the pandemic had uncovered inherent weaknesses in the system, including what she described as the political appointment of managers.

Romania currently has three hospitals under military command, after managers resigned following outbreaks at their facilities.

Parvulescu said the crisis has cast public administration in a bad light.

"The image of civil administration has been damaged, for example in Suceava, where the military are the only ones who [appear] capable" of running a hospital facility, he said.

In some places, local officials who say residents are not respecting stay-at-home orders are appealing to the military for help.

Viorel Ionescu, mayor of Harsova, called on the military to guard key state institutions in his town to free up gendarmes to patrol the streets.

He told RFE/RL on April 10 that about 170 people had returned to the community of 11,000 from Britain, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands since the outbreak began. Some didn't respect self-isolation rules and police had to place them in institutionalized quarantine, he said.

“We are discussing rights being restricted, including the right to free movement,” Ionescu said. “But the first right is the right to health and life -- that is the first place -- followed by education, access to information, and then free movement.”

“At the moment, free movement has to be restricted because it endangers the right to life," he added. "It’s not my right to go when and where I want, when I can infect you.”

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