Human Rights in Romania – 2019
The most important events of 2019 in Romania were the elections for the European Parliament held together with a referendum about whether to prohibit amnesties and pardons for corruption offences, followed by the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, and ending with the presidential elections. It was another year marked by political and social turmoil, between the two sides setting themselves as “defenders” and “reformers” of the Romanian justice system and with very few debates regarding Romanian society’s real needs.
The elections for the European Parliament, held in May 2019 were lost by the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD), as the population’s trust in the party governing since 2016 was eroded, but also largely “assisted” by the fact that Romania’s President called for a referendum concerning matters of justice to be held together with the elections for the European Parliament. APADOR-CH pointed out that the practice of mixing topics, although constitutional, should be used for significant matters that require consultation of the population and not for a mere poll, as proved by this referendum, whose only benefit was increasing the turnout – a kind of electoral bus – in favour of certain parties and to the detriment of others.
The conviction and incarceration, on the day following the election, of the PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, influenced the fate of the party and hence the events leading to the presidential elections which took place in the fall, as the party wasn’t able to come up with a challenger to the president in office. Klaus Iohannis won by a landslide. The election campaign was marked by the president’s obstinate refusal to participate in electoral debates, despite his opponents’ insistence and the general public’s signals, which both requested and was entitled to this minimal democratic effort.
A favourable juncture in the Parliament managed with just a few weeks before the presidential elections to overturn the PSD government and put a PNL (National Liberal Party) government in place and to revive the public discussions on early elections. PNL promised nothing more and nothing less than to repair the shortcomings of the former Government. The Presidency of the Council held by Romania in the first half of 2019, didn’t come with the problems of catastrophic proportions predicted by the opposition, as the mandate was relatively trivial, in tune with Romania’s ability to perform in the European team.
Beyond the political turmoil, Romania was shaken in July 2019 by the outrageous crime in Caracal, when a 15-year-old girl was abducted and killed by a man who had kidnapped her while she was hitchhiking. The teenager managed to call 112 several times from her abductor’s mobile and ask for the police’s help, but the authorities proved incapable of finding her on time and saving her. The death of the victim and the catch of the murderer revealed other victims and systemic issues, generated by the poverty of the rural areas, by the lack of local transportation between towns, by the connections between the leaders of human trafficking networks and prominent locals and even representatives of the justice system.
The finishing touches of Romania’s dismal picture, revealed by the Caracal case, came from the emergency system’s technical and organizational inability to respond to the population’s needs promptly. These shortcomings were “remedied” by a superficial emergency ordinance issued in July 2019 in the heat of the moment. This ordinance brought a few new measures and fulfilled an older desire of the Romanian state to access its citizens’ data: it conditioned the sale of pre-paid SIM cards by registering the buyer’s identity card. The reason given by the Government was that this way the emergency services will be able to locate the citizens faster if their identity cards are registered, and it would enable the authorities to fine those who abuse the emergency line.
APADOR-CH pointed out to Romania’s Ombudsman the unconstitutionality of the new provision, sent an amicus curiae to the Romanian Constitutional Court to support the Ombudsman and forwarded to the Ministry of Internal Affairs a few propositions for the improvement of the law on the search of missing persons. In early 2020 the Government postponed the coming into effect of the emergency ordinance, waiting for the Decision of the Constitutional Court on our appeal.
Another recurring problem which is seemingly hard to solve and which continued to linger in 2019 was prison overcrowding. Although over 14,000 incarcerated persons have been released based on the law on sentence reduction, the penitentiaries’ occupancy rate was constantly at 111%, and the prison conditions have been slightly improved. In 2019, the second year out of seven in which Romania should have fulfilled its commitments to ECHR, following the pilot decision, the Government did less than half of what it had promised (for this stage) on improving detainment conditions (for this stage).
Internally APADOR-CH requested the abrogation of the law on early release and the passing of a different criminal policy, which would not encourage criminality, corroborated with the intensification of the efforts for building new detention centres and the retrofitting of the existent ones. In December 2019, the Romanian Parliament passed the law on “sentence reduction”, and the Government will present to the Committee of Ministers a new action plan to solve systemic issues (including overcrowding). It remains to be seen what alternatives the new Government will put forward in front of the Committee of Ministers, as the law on sentence reduction was the central piece of the plan to reduce prison overcrowding, which was not backed up with complementary measures such as retrofitting of the detention centres and the construction of new ones.
Externally, APADOR-CH sent a brief to the Committee of Ministers (responsible for the monitoring of the implementation of the ECHR judgments), in which it mentioned the severity of the situation and the measures required. Furthermore, following our visits to the penitentiaries throughout 2019, APADOR-CH communicated to the Committee of Ministers on the case Ticu v. Romania (Communication 1 and Communication 2) its concerns regarding the inadequate management of psychiatric services for detainees with mental health issues, another significant deficiency of the Romanian prison system for which ECHR sanctioned the state.
2019 also brought changes in the legislation governing the NGO’s activities, by the entry into force of legal acts which had been long criticised in the previous years for their violations of the freedom of association. Under the guise of implementing the European Directive on preventing money laundering a law was passed obliging NGOs to declare/report the “beneficial owner”. The European Directive notes the obligation of reporting the beneficial owner only for banks and financial institutions, but not for NGOs. The law was declared unconstitutional, but only for a minor reason (the wrongful exclusion of associations representing national minorities from the reporting obligations), but not for the fact that it unduly added to the European Directive. The law came into force, but its application is still confusing. APADOR-CH interceded both with the Ministry of Justice and the National Office for Prevention and Control of Money Laundering, to obtain an explanation on the specifics of the reporting itself. However, neither institution clearly explained the procedure, while the sanction for not reporting the real beneficiary is the dissolution of the organization.
In 2019 APADOR-CH continued its activity in the LEAP and JUSTICIA networks. LEAP (Legal Experts Advisory Panel) is a European network of experts in criminal justice and human rights that promotes fair trial rights in Europe. LEAP currently counts some 200 organizational members, with representatives from law firms, CSOs, and academic institutions, covering all 28 EU Member States. The JUSTICIA European Rights Network (JUSTICIA) is a network of leading civil society organizations from across Europe, mainly national-level civil liberties organizations, designed to help them cooperate and coordinate around promoting the right to a fair trial in Europe. In this context, in 2019 APADOR-CH carried out projects meant to strengthen the right to a fair trial, has created some workgroups with specialists in the judicial system (law enforcement officers, lawyers, and prosecutors) which came up with straightforward suggestions on how to improve the criminal legislation and the work procedures in and between institutions, to better inform the suspected/accused persons during the criminal proceedings and to improve the court-appointed legal assistance.
On numerous occasions, APADOR-CH engaged in the public life, taking a position on matters regarding civil rights infringements, proposing legislative changes, requesting information and supporting the Ombudsman. These public interventions include proposals to change the law on missing persons (after the Caracal case), proposals to change the electoral law, the referral to the Ombudsman concerning the unconstitutionality of the government ordinance on the purchase of pre-paid cards or on how the Bucharest municipality passed the Oxygen Tax on owners of polluting cars.
On an organizational level, in 2019 the APADOR-CH team welcomed a new Livia Popa and two new members: Laura Olrescu and Ștefan Voinea.
Executive Director of APADOR-CH