July 9, 2018 / 7:32 AM / 9 days ago

Romania's president removes chief anti-corruption prosecutor

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis sacked chief anti-corruption prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi on Monday to honour a constitutional court ruling which Kovesi said may leave prosecutors exposed to political interference.

FILE PHOTO: Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, and the Chief of anti-corruption prosecuting agency DNA, Laura Codruta Kovesi, stand while listening the national anthem being played at the beginning of the anti-corruption agency's annual report, in Bucharest, Romania, February 28, 2018. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea/File Photo via REUTERS

Kovesi has led the DNA anti-corruption agency since 2013 and, under her management, conviction rates have risen sharply in one of European Union’s most corrupt states, winning plaudits from Brussels who has its judiciary under special monitoring.

“Constitutional court rulings must be obeyed in a state that respects rule of law. The president issued the decree to remove the chief prosecutor from post,” presidency spokeswoman Madalina Dobrovolschi told reporters.

In reaction, Kovesi said: “Today’s episode is not a defeat - corruption can be defeated. Do not abandon (the fight). After 5 years, one month and 24 days in office I can tell you that nothing can be put in balance with the need to further fight corruption.”

She blamed ruling politicians for attempting to block the functioning of the judiciary by softening criminal-related bills in parliament, in a bid to seek protection against prosecution for “past, present and future,” deeds.

Kovesi said the court ruling that forced the president to sack her after an initial request by the justice ministry “will leave a big question mark hanging: Will there be a discretionary subordination of prosecutors to the justice ministry?”

Prosecutors have secured a spate of convictions in recent years against lawmakers, ministers and mayors, exposing conflicts of interest, abuse of power, fraud and awarding of state contracts in exchange for bribes.

Justice Minister Tudorel Toader called for Kovesi’s dismissal in February, saying she had exceeded her authority and damaged Romania’s image abroad. His call drew thousands of anti-graft protesters onto the streets in opposition.

The country’s judicial watchdog had said Toader’s request was unfounded and Iohannis rejected it, prompting the government to ask the constitutional court to decide whether his rejection had created an institutional conflict.

On May 30, the court ruled the president did not have the constitutional right to oppose a dismissal request legally initiated by the justice minister. Instead, he is limited to assessing the legality of the procedure.

The ruling Social Democrats, whose leader Liviu Dragnea last month got a preliminary prison sentence for instigating abuses of office, have yet to react to Kovesi’s removal. They have repeatedly accused Kovesi of carrying out a political witch-hunt.

Deputy chief-prosecutor Marius Iacob is expected to take over Kovesi’s role on an interim basis.

The justice ministry said the process to select a new chief prosecutor will begin on July 23, when prosecutors with a minimum of 10 years experience can submit applications. The ministry will pick a winner on July 30.

Editing by Toby Chopra

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