By Daniel Stroe – Bucharest
The debates this past week in Romania focused on the new Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code which again pitched President Traian Basescu against his political rival PM Victor Ponta and underscored the Romanian politicians’ weak commitment to bolster the fight against high-level corruption, only a few months after they raised eyebrows with a series of proposals meant to shield them from graft charges.
The two new codes go into force as of today and are meant to streamline the judicial procedures in criminal cases and trials. As of today, criminals will receive softer sentences, especially if judges deal with a first offense. Repeated offenders will get harder sentences, especially if they commit accumulated offenses. A sentence can now be appealed one time only, while the house arrest and educative sentences for people under age are introduced.
But the enforcement of the new Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code will allow offenders now serving a prison term to apply for the softer sentences the new codes introduce. For instance, Nicolae Popa, one of the people behind a huge financial scheme which had about 300,000 victims in Romania, currently serving a 15 years prison term for fraud, can be released because the new Penal Code reduces the sentence to mere 5 years. Popa, convicted in 2009, can thus apply for release from prison since he served the 5 years.
About 200 convicts are in the same situation, minister of Justice Robert Cazanciuc said, of a total of more than 30,000 people currently behind the bars in Romania. All the cases will be dealt with individually by judges, Cazanciuc explained. But magistrates say the number is 400 while another 6000 convicts can apply for release on parole.
But the issue which heated the debate and sparked verbal attacks between the President and the PM is the fact that about 64 corruption file now under investigation by the National Anticorruption Department (DNA) risk being closed all of a sudden because lower sentences and the intervention of prescription for some files under investigation for many years. Another provision says phone tapping can only be done in the indictment phase of a suspect and the prosecutor has to inform the indicted he may be wired which seriously decrease chances of gathering incriminating evidence. Basically, the tapping becomes completely useless in criminal cases. Many high-profile corruption files so far have been based on phone tapping which produced concrete proof against the respective suspects.
President Basescu called on PM Victor Ponta to pass an emergency decree and amend the Penal Code so the controversial provisions are eliminated. “If PM Ponta doesn’t make these changes he will become the corruption emblem (…) f he doesn’t make these changes urgently he will become a shield for corruption” Basescu warned in a public statement on Thursday. Basescu specifically asked for the change of the provision which bans phone tapping before the indictment phase which will kill all the anti-corruption investigations. But Basescu assumed what he called the mistake of promulgating the law on enforcing the new Penal Code last year and admitted he wrongly interpreted the sense of the phone tapping provision in the new code.
DNA and Romania’s High Court of Justice also called on PM Ponta to amend the new codes through emergency governmental decrees. Pressured by the media and civil society, PM Victor Ponta said he would not pass an emergency decree by today, but said he would seek to correct some flawed provision of the new codes on Wednesday’s government meeting, but only based on recommendations of the minister of Justice. Even if done, these changes will come too late, analysts and magistrates warned cause convicts can already take advantage of the new provisions in force as of today. Ponta reminded Basescu he had promulgated the new codes and called on him to assume this responsibility, diverting the attention from the urgent aspects of the new codes enforcement.
But despite these political attacks between the two arch-rivals who never miss a chance to assail each other, especially since Romania has gone into an electoral year, many questions arise as to why PM Ponta, a prosecutor by training, failed to hear the recommendations, criticism and recommendations of the fellow magistrates and correct what could be corrected in time. Despite Basescu’s assumed error of promulgating the two codes, PM Ponta, as someone who nurtures big political ambitions and whom many see as the next president after Basescu’s second term ends in December, should have avoided new suspicions among European partners he is not serious about protecting the anti-corruption fight and especially questions such as whom he is protecting by refusing to amend the Penal Code.