Sandu’s Justice Reform: A PR Move or a Return of Plahotniuc’s Methods?

Home / Eurointegration / Sandu’s Justice Reform: A PR Move or a Return of Plahotniuc’s Methods?
Christian RUSSU
Amid growing protests, the ruling party is rebooting the justice reform, which was one of PAS’s main campaign slogans. But it is doing so in a typically authoritarian manner
Sandu and the justice system Following the meeting of the Supreme Security Council on September 5, Maia Sandu criticized the state of justice in Moldova and announced plans to take radical measures in order to “restore order and justice” in the near future. The choice of the time for the speech and its deliberate “pretentiousness” show that the ruling party has decided to speed up the next “justice reform”. It is based on Vladimir Plahotniuc’s well-known practices of manual control over the justice system in order to speed up the criminal prosecution of opposition representatives and to complete the high-profile cases against the “puppeteer”. On the one hand, it should cool down the most ardent oppositionists (by showing the government’s determination to make no bones of them), and on the other hand, it should demonstrate the fulfillment of the pre-election promises to combat corruption and punish those responsible, including those for the “stolen billion”. To the logical question of why this has not happened in a full year of PAS in power, the president also had an answer. It turns out that literally everyone in the country is in the way of swift and fair justice. For instance, attorneys abuse the law in criminal cases of grand corruption and delay sentencing in courts in every possible way. Judges also found themselves in trouble: Maia Sandu questioned the effectiveness of the existing courts and on behalf of the Supreme Court of Justice announced the creation of special courts or expert judicial panels. The latter are to be established by the Superior Council of Magistracy by the end of the month. As for the Prosecutor’s Office, whose leadership was either removed or renewed by the ruling party, there were, expectedly, fewer complaints about it. Although the head of state said, in a populist manner, that she wanted to hear that Plahotniuc’s arrested assets were not just frozen, but had already entered the budget: “The Prosecutor General’s Office informed us that seven billion lei were seized today. We said that we want to discuss the issue of money seized, not just arrested”. Another “stone in the garden” of justice concerned leaks of information about criminal cases. Our leader said that this situation undermines the credibility of justice and investigation, providing evidence of corruption in the system. Therefore, the members of the Supreme Security Council suggested that some kind of mechanism for assessing these violations be developed as a solution. Sandu also spoke negatively about the so-called “televised justice”, when searches and arrests are carried out under TV cameras and then nothing happens. High-profile PR The bold plans to accelerate justice reforms trumpeted by the president caused a wave of confusion, negative reactions, and accusations of trying to establish political control over the justice sector in the country. One could suggest that Sandu’s “crusade” is in itself a PR stunt aimed at diverting public attention away from piles of socio-economic problems. However, taking into account the experience of the past, it all smells like another attempt to adapt the work of the justice system to the interests of the ruling regime. Already a couple of days after the meeting of the Supreme Security Council, the Lawyers’ Union stated about the inadmissibility of such rhetoric. They expressed indignation at the accusations of abuse, when the legislation clearly prescribes how they should perform their professional duties and establishes procedures so that it would be impossible to delay a criminal case. They are alarmed “at the risk that the rule of law in the Republic of Moldova can be destroyed”. Such concerns have a number of reasons. First of all, it is unclear why, in a parliamentary republic, it is the president who initiates such loud and radical reforms. It is worth recalling that CSS is, in fact, no more than an advisory body without real powers. That is why the demands of this structure on the judiciary bodies look more like a political decorum, which can be regarded as an attempt of political interference and as an empty fuss in the air. The authorities, in fact, are once again going down the slippery slope of creating the illusion of rapid change among the population, while demotivating representatives of the judiciary because of possible persecutions and demands for political loyalty. or political interference? In fact, in accusing the investigative bodies of being engaged in “televised justice”, the ruling party must have forgotten that its own actions while detaining Prosecutor General Alexander Stoianoglo and making repeated public appeals to put the SOR leaders and Igor Dodon behind bars. Naturally, the law enforcement bodies respond to the political situation and create a picture that is expected of them. This is where the active work of both judges and prosecutors usually ends. Legal experts are well aware of the main reasons for this deplorable situation. These include the non-functionality of the Superior Council of Magistrates and the Superior Council of Prosecutors, the main collegial bodies of the justice system. PAS initially set itself the goal of subjugating these structures. In 2021, the process of modifying the legislation and procedures to change their composition to a more loyal one was quickly launched. These changes were hastily approved without any consultation with the expert community. In the meantime, the Superior Council of Magistrates had not convened for four years.  It has been a year since the powers of all its members expired. At the same time, the President is blocking the exercise of administrative functions by this body. On April 15, the SCM submitted to Sandu a list of 40 judges who, according to the current procedure, must be reappointed. The judicial community expected it to be done within a month. However, on June 1, a Presidential letter was “leaked” to the press in which she rejected the candidacies of 13 judges on the grounds that they allegedly did not meet the requirements of incorruptibility and impeccable reputation. Naturally, no evidence of this was presented. Thus, these judges were politically labelled as dishonest, which was condemned not only by the judicial community, but also by independent human rights organizations. Then Sandu was accused of a lack of transparency and the continuation of Plahotniuc’s bad practice of rejecting the SCM proposals. All this led to the fact that dozens of judges could not continue their work and, consequently, all their cases were suspended indefinitely. Three months later, the situation remains suspended because of the President’s actions. In addition to the judges who were denied extensions, 27 candidates are still under review. Some of them have been in this status for more than two years. In an interview, Minister of Justice Sergiu Litvinenco honestly admitted that everything in this matter is up to the President, who, in his words, “took her attribution seriously, as she sees the things”. Her office has ordered some kind of checks in relation to each person, which in fact can be seen as outright political pressure. “This is not an ordinary situation preceding the appointment of the next Supreme Council of Magistrates. When we have enough evaluations, from our point of view, from the President’s team, then we will make a decision on these judges,” Sandu said. This kind of authoritarianism is not unexpected. Previously, experts had already observed the reshuffling of state institutions, especially institutions employing persons undesirable to the authorities. This also applies to the Constitutional Court, which was appointed based on political loyalty. Later on, the judges of the Constitutional Court received an unprecedented increase in their pay.  The reform of the Supreme Court of Justice is up next. Its members were also elected under political pressure from the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry of Justice has recently drafted a bill to reform the Supreme Court of Justice, under which each judge with more than 16 years’ experience who has passed the extraordinary certification will receive double pay (63,908 lei per month). As we can see, the methods do not change much. The ruling authorities’ actions, on the one hand, are a PR exercise without a well-thought-out strategy and, on the other hand, threaten another politicization of the judiciary and justice, following the example of 2017, when prosecutors were obliged to sign a statement of loyalty to the Plahotniuc regime. This, of course, is very far from PAS pre-election promises and European standards. However, Sandu and her entourage seem to be ready to resort again to the tools already tested by the “former master of Moldova” in the quest for absolute power. Moreover, if recently many people were equating the regimes of Sandu and Plahotniuc, soon we will be saying that the country has developed an even uglier form of “captured state” than it was in the second half of the 2010s.