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Romanian former anti-graft chief wins case in European court

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — The European Court of Human Rights said Tuesday that Romania violated the right to a fair trial and the right to free speech of the former head of the country's anti-corruption office, who has since become the European Union’s first chief prosecutor.

The court based in Strasbourg, France, found in its unanimous ruling that “there had been no way” for Laura Codruta Kovesi, who was fired in July 2018, to make a court claim against her removal from office, while her freedom of expression was violated because of her dismissal for criticizing the government's anti-corruption legislation.

The ECHR also found that Kovesi's firing may have had wide-ranging repercussions within Romania's judicial system. “It appeared that her premature removal had defeated the very purpose of maintaining judicial independence and must have had a chilling effect on her and other prosecutors and judges in taking part in public debate on legislative reforms affecting the judiciary and judicial independence,” the court said.

While ruling in her favor, the court did not award Kovesi any monetary compensation as she had not asked for any. Kovesi said the ECHR ruling would help strengthen judicial independence across the continent.

“We all know that my dismissal was part of an intimidation campaign against the justice system, in an attempt to discourage the fight against corruption,” Kovesi told Romanian news channel Realitatea Plus. "This ruling by the ECHR strengthens the position of all European magistrates, defending them from discretionary political interference.”

Kovesi spent five years as the head of the Romanian Anti-corruption Directorate, achieving remarkable results. Those indicted included 14 Cabinet members, 53 lawmakers and a Romanian member of the European Parliament. In Romania, her removal was seen as political retaliation for her department’s successes.

Her dismissal initiated by the since-ousted Social Democratic government 10 months before her second three-year term was set to end in May 2019 was widely criticized both domestically and abroad and only served to heighten Kovesi's reputation.

President Klaus Iohannis, who had fired Kovesi on orders of Romania's Constitutional Court, said the ECHR decision “could not remain without consequences.” “The credibility of the Constitutional Court, already affected by some controversial decisions over the past few years, is now even more seriously shaken,” Iohannis said in a televised statement. "The decision by ECHR shows us that this institution needs to be reformed at the constitutional level.”

In October 2019, Kovesi was named to lead the EU Public Prosecutor’s Office, which has been joined by 22 of the 27 EU member states and is scheduled to begin operating in November 2020. Its main task will be to investigate fraud connected to the use of EU funds and other financial crimes. Romania, Poland and Hungary are among the EU countries which did not join the office.

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