January 16, 2019 / 5:21 PM / 6 months ago

Romanian top court's wiretap ruling puts graft trials at risk

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - A Romanian Constitutional Court ruling on Wednesday regarding wiretap evidence threatens to put an end to ongoing investigations including for high-profile corruption cases.

In a case brought by the ruling Social Democrats, the court ruled that cooperation protocols signed by prosecuting units with the intelligence agency SRI placed the two institutions in a constitutional conflict with parliament.

The SRI had been collecting wiretap evidence and other types of proof on behalf of prosecutors based on court warrants - as they were legally mandated to assist with investigations - but the party’s case partly hinged on the protocols not being made public.

The Social Democrats have argued that by signing the protocols, prosecutors gave SRI powers that could only be granted by the legislature.

Wednesday’s ruling means that such evidence could now be struck down from ongoing investigations and trials, the latest blow dealt to the fight against corruption and the judiciary since the Social Democrats came into power two years ago.

The court ruling would have no impact on cases already tried and sentenced.

Anti-corruption prosecutors have convicted thousands of public officials, including lawmakers and ministers and their investigations have exposed conflicts of interest, fraud and the award of state contracts in exchange for bribes.

Among those convicted is Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea. He has a two-year suspended jail sentence in a vote-rigging case. He has also been sentenced to 3-1/2 years in jail in a separate abuse of office case, and his appeal is ongoing.

He is also under investigation on suspicion of forming a criminal group to siphon off cash from state projects, some of them EU-funded. The case has yet to go to trial. Dragnea denies all the charges.

Transparency International ranks Romania as one of the EU’s most corrupt states and Brussels has kept its justice system under special monitoring since it joined the bloc in 2007.

Last year the European Commission said that proposed changes to the judicial system and criminal code signalled a reversal of a decade of democratic and market reforms.

The European Parliament also passed a non-binding resolution urging a greater fight against corruption, condemning police brutality during anti-graft protests and demanding an end to what it called the erosion of the rule of law.

Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Alison Williams

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