October 24, 2018 / 4:15 PM / 22 days ago

Romanian justice minister demands prosecutor general's dismissal

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania’s justice minister on Wednesday demanded the prosecutor general’s dismissal, accusing him of exceeding his authority in a move that could heighten concerns in Brussels about democratic values in some eastern EU member states.

FILE PHOTO: Romanian Justice Minister Tudorel Toader gestures while talking to media representatives minutes before delivering a news conference in Bucharest, Romania, February 22, 2018. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via REUTERS

Other recent steps by Romania’s ruling Social Democrats to change the justice system and replace senior judicial officials have triggered massive street protests, and sparked worries about the rule of law at the European Commission and among diplomats.

Justice Minister Tudorel Toader read a summary of a 20-point report that he had compiled, calling for Prosecutor General Augustin Lazar to be fired on the grounds that he was responsible for “acts and facts intolerable to the rule of law.”

Lazar is the last major figure in an anti-corruption drive that has won praise from Brussels for exposing high-level corruption, including the theft of EU funds.

He condemned Toader’s bid to oust him. “(This) is the way that the executive, by way of the justice minister, demonstrates its understanding about respect for prosecutors’ independence,” he told reporters.

Lazar oversees thousands of prosecutors, including anti-organised crime unit DIICOT and anti-corruption unit DNA.

The DIICOT leader’s mandate has expired, and the head of the DNA, Laura Codruta Kovesi, was fired in July after a performance review similar to Lazar’s. Critics say their potential replacements might be soft on crime.

Under Romanian law, the president must sign off on petitions to dismiss chief prosecutors, which are requested by the justice minister and also need approval from a judicial watchdog.

However, the Constitutional Court ruled earlier this year that the president does not have the right to oppose such a request from the justice minister. As a result, President Klaus Iohannis had to sack the DNA’s Kovesi in July.

Iohannis will be limited to assessing the legality of the procedure. Analysts have said the constitutional court’s ruling increased the government’s power over prosecutors.

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.

Anti-corruption prosecutors have convicted thousands of public officials, including lawmakers and ministers.

Among them is Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea who has a two-year suspended jail sentence in a vote-rigging case. He was also sentenced to three and a half years in jail in a separate abuse of office case. He denies all charges and has appealed.

The European Commission, which is already seeking sanctions against Poland and Hungary for flouting democratic values, fears Romania is following suit. It is due to release its latest justice monitoring report on Romania in November.

Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Radu Marinas and Helen Popper

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