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Prosecutor's offices in Romania

Victor MAIER

On the eve of accession to the European Union, one of the fields facing particular difficulties in Romania is still the justice system. The core problem with this sector, along with the judges' actual independence, is the organisation and functioning system of prosecutor's offices.



Prosecutors' status and their activity

 

In a democratic society, magistrates employed with prosecutor's offices must comply with very strict conditions, as their ultimate role is to protect citizens' fundamental rights and freedom. It is for this reason that both the European Union and the Council of Europe lay particular emphasis on the quality of prosecutor's offices in accession countries.

While in other sectors European conditions have been met, as far as the prosecutors' status and their activity is concerned, there is still a lot to be done. This is the consequence of the unacceptable tardiness of justice system reforms since December 1989.

Although at a legislative, official level prosecutors' activity was substantially reorganised, in terms of practical, concrete activity in criminal proceedings there are a lot of things that have not changed in the least over the past 15 years. This type of mind and action frame, which we will illustrate below, is a lot closer to the purposes for which the Communist prosecutor's offices were established back in 1952, than to the rule-of-law principles according to which fundamental human rights outweigh State interests.

The prosecutor's office, an institution based on Soviet models, was established under Law no. 6 in 1952, as one of the main tools used by the Communist power in view of completely subduing the Romanian society. The institution was a lot different from the institutions based on French pattern, which had operated until that moment in the Romanian criminal law system. The role of the new institution taken over from the Soviet experience, was not that of exercising the indictment function in the society, in strict compliance with fundamental human rights and procedural norms, but was mainly that of acting as a tool to pressure the regime opponents. To achieve this the new institution of the totalitarian power was not to be "hindered" by any peremptory procedural norms, but was to enjoy quasi-absolute power in all the stages of the criminal suit. For 40 years the prosecutor's office successfully played this part, by instating arbitrary practices which gradually influenced the mentality and operation manner of most actors in criminal proceedings.

We thus reached a stage when, more often than not, the one to actually pass a ruling in a trial was the prosecutor rather than the judge, as courts had turned into accessories to the prosecutor's office. For instance, charges were hardly ever withdrawn, as opposed to democratic states where in approx. half of the cases prosecutor's offices submit to courts, judges rule to dismiss charges.

 

Totalitarian state mentality

 

The core issue with the Romanian legal system is that, after December 1989 as well, in spite of the (sometimes radical) change in legislation, the aforesaid mentality induced not only to prosecutors, but also to judges and other stakeholders in criminal procedures has hardly changed. And what we mean by this is not the legal norms, generally the easiest to modify, but their enforcement, the concrete stages of the criminal trial.

Below is a review of only some examples of a preserved totalitarian state mentality in today's Romanian society:

- The chief weapon available for a prosecutor to put pressure on those under investigation was the possibility of taking preventive arrest measures. In democratic states this is only permitted to an independent magistrate, and not to one subordinated in a hierarchy, as prosecutors are in Romania. Nonetheless, in spite of warnings coming from the Council of Europe and even to clear-cut signals sent by the European Court for Human Rights (the ruling passed in 1998 in the Vasilescu file), Romania maintained this undemocratic prerogative for approximately 14 years. It was only in 2003, under the pressure of the European Court, that openly criticised the State- in this respect, that authorities decided to assign the preventive arrest prerogative to judges. At present however in most cases arrest proposals filed by prosecutors are readily approved by judges, and only rarely turned down;

- In the same respect, proposals to extend the preventive arrest in the criminal investigation stage are approved without prosecutors producing sound evidence that freeing the defendant during investigations would pose a threat to public order, as the Code of Criminal Procedure clearly stipulates. The respective proposals are approved in spite of flagrant violation of legal provisions, such as the deadline for submitting such an extensionproposal;

- But the abusive nature of prosecutor's office activity, not sanctioned in any form by courts, does not end with the issue of preventive arrest. In certain cases, even when legislative texts are in line with requirements of an open society, they are devoid of their contents through prosecutor's office illegal practices, validated by courts out of mere subservience. A relevant example in this respect is the issue of forms on which statements are being recorded in criminal investigations. Until January 1, 2004, the Code of Criminal Procedure did not stipulate that the forms on which such statements are recorded be registered in any way, which very often allowed for abusive practices by prosecutors, who did not include all statements in the file, but only those statements that suited their interests. To end such illegal practices, the lawmaker requested, under modifications to the Code of Criminal Procedure on January 1, 2004, that such statements be taken on special forms, registered in distinct registries. Nonetheless, the normative act is not complied with, as in most of the cases statements continue to be taken on regular forms. Furthermore, courts confirm and use such statements in criminal trial proceedings, although they ought to cancel or remove them from the file;

- Another aspect is the violation of the right to defence. In this respect, we would only like to emphasise that, in many cases, the criminal investigation file is only made available to the defence attorney right before the person is sent to court. The reason put forth is the alleged classified nature of the criminal investigation, although there is no such provision whatsoever included in the Code of Criminal Procedure. And it is self-evident that an effective defence case cannot be built without knowing the contents of the criminal investigation file. In democratic states, prior to taking the first statement of the defendant, the attorney is called to the prosecutor's office, where they can analyse the file or even get copies of the documents;

- In line with the part it played prior to 1989 in the totalitarian system, the mentality persists in prosecutor's offices that prosecutors are never wrong and all those sent to court must be convicted. Therefore, hardly ever does a prosecutor ask for charges to be dismissed. Moreover, in an utterly mechanical manner, when the court passes such a ruling, prosecutors challenge the ruling, otherwise they are liable to be held responsible. In fact, although the law stipulates that prosecutors are to seek to find the truth, in practice prosecutors aim to ensure at all costs the defendant's conviction;

- Adding to all these is the excessive media coverage of trials, the supply of confidential and incomplete information to the media, for prosecutor's offices to ensure public support and to exert pressure on judges, so that they take the measures proposed by prosecutors. All these lead to violation of the defendants' fundamental rights, in particular of the assumption of innocence, which has become a formula devoid of meaning in Romania;

- These are only few of the possible examples illustrating the manner in which the totalitarian mentality has survived in justice making institutions in Romania. Such abuse would not be possible if courts played their part as guarantors of the rule of law and sanctioned prosecutor's office abuse. Instead, they endorse such abuse, and are reluctant to sanctioning it. The attitude can be accounted for, to a certain extent, considering the judges' professional education system and appointment system. They graduate from the same education institution as prosecutors, the National Magistracy Institute, and most of the judges in criminal courts are former prosecutors.

 

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