World News

Romanian Court Convicts Top Politician in Test of Judicial System

Posted June 21, 2018 7:08 p.m. EDT

BUCHAREST, Romania — Romania’s highest court Thursday sentenced Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the country’s governing Social Democratic Party, to three years and six months in jail for abuse of office.

While the verdict is likely to be appealed, it was a bitter blow to Dragnea, who many consider to be the most powerful politician in the country.

The High Court of Cassation and Justice found Dragnea guilty of intervening to keep two of his party’s employees, who performed no state work, on the public payroll from 2006 to 2013 when he was a local council leader. The court cleared him of a related charge of intellectual forgery.

The verdict came in the face of escalating attacks by Dragnea and his supporters on the justice system and claims that he was the victim of selective prosecution by a “parallel state” cabal.

The court’s verdict, which had been postponed twice to allow more time for deliberation, was greeted with cautious optimism by many in Romania, where attacks on the justice system have grown in recent years. Prosecutors had asked for a 7 1/2-year sentence.

Romania, which has a population of more than 20 million, has long been considered one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, but in recent years the country has made strong efforts to rein in high-level graft. In 2004 it established the National Anticorruption Directorate, which has successfully prosecuted thousands of lawmakers, civil servants and business leaders.

But over the past 18 months, Romania has been caught in a bitter fight over judicial legislation and overall anti-corruption efforts. In January 2017, the Romanian government passed an emergency ordinance that effectively decriminalized low-level corruption, a move that set off the largest protests in the country since the fall of the Communist government in 1989.

The government backed down but has continued to chip away at the powers of the courts. This week, Parliament approved revised criminal justice legislation that many fear will further weaken anti-corruption efforts.

“The political pressure has been huge in the last one and a half years,” said Dan Barna, leader of the opposition Save Romania Union party. “This verdict is exactly what decent society in Romania needed in order to keep alive the trust that Romania is still a democracy, still a European country and not a dictatorship in the model of an Erdogan or Orban,” a reference to the leaders of Turkey and Hungary.

Barna added that his party had asked Dragnea to resign from his position as speaker of the lower house of Parliament. “He’s now in the position to change the law to benefit himself,” Barna said. “It is unacceptable for any country to have a twice-convicted individual in a position to influence justice laws.”

Dragnea previously received a two-year suspended sentence after he was convicted of electoral fraud related to a referendum held in 2012. The sentence barred him from becoming prime minister when his party won parliamentary elections in December 2016. His earlier conviction also means that he is likely to serve some time in prison if an appeal of the latest conviction fails.

In recent months, Dragnea and his allies have waged a war of words against the justice system and those they have called members of the “deep state.” This month his party gathered more than 100,000 citizens in Bucharest to take part in a pro-government rally. Dragnea took to the stage during the rally and railed against the “parallel state,” maintaining that he was a victim of an abusive justice system that was wiretapping millions of Romanians.

Attacks on the justice system are unlikely to stop. Instead, they could get worse after Thursday’s court ruling.

“This verdict is important for Romania, but it is not the final decision,” said Cristian Pirvulescu, dean of the political science department at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest. Raising the possibility of legislative changes that could render the verdict moot, he said: “It isn’t yet final, and that’s the problem. The governing party can change the justice legislation.”

Pirvulescu added that Dragnea did not have real opposition within his own party and that Social Democrat lawmakers were rallying around him. “The party will go on the attack, maybe by suspending the president,” he added.

President Klaus Iohannis, a former leader of the opposition National Liberal Party, is a vocal supporter of anti-corruption efforts but is under increasing pressure to fire the country’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi, after the justice minister recommended her dismissal in February. Last month, the Constitutional Court ruled that Iohannis was unable to stop her dismissal, though so far he has put off a decision.

On Thursday evening, thousands gathered in Piata Victoriei, a major square in Bucharest that has been the site of frequent anti-government protests in recent years.

“I’m in the square not to celebrate the conviction but to celebrate the continuing independence of the courts, despite the last 18 months of attacks,” said Mihai Politeanu, one of the founders of Initiative Romania, a nongovernmental organization that has been rallying support for the justice system.

But Politeanu added that he was worried that Dragnea would now try to get lawmakers to amend the criminal code or issue an emergency decree “in order to decriminalize the crime of abuse of office.”

“If he does that,” he said, “it would set the country on fire.”