The scandal surrounding Iulian Muntean, a member of the Superior Council of Magistracy appointed as part of the justice system reform, had a bombshell effect and triggered an instinctive defense reaction in the authorities. A decision was made to completely cleanse the justice system before the end of the year
The past week was unusually rich in remarkable events in the field of justice. A real epic story unfolded around the newly appointed member of the Superior Council of Magistracy Iulian Muntean, who in a few days involved all the power institutions in the vortex of a political scandal. The frantic attempts by officials to justify themselves and shift responsibility to each other opened new scandalous plots, exposing the whole justice reform in an extremely poor light.
It all started with the information of the expert and ex-diplomat Valeriu Ostalep that the recently appointed SCM member, who passed the pre-vetting commission filter, is a defendant in a criminal case on corruption with the status of accused. As it turned out, both Muntean and his wife are related to the ruling party, and both of them are under investigation. Pictures of the Muntean couple campaigning for PAS went online. However, the officials initially ignored all accusations against them, and after their rapid public dissemination, denied them.
Muntean himself said that he was a victim of manipulation and misinformation by Plahotniuc’s henchmen and would not give up his mandate. Olesea Stamate, who is responsible for justice reforms in PAS, stood up for him, saying that it was “a dirty game of some corrupt groups in the system to undermine the reform”. Then it was the turn of Muntean’s colleagues in the SCM, among whom an argument broke out over whether or not to support the offended colleague. The reason for this was the prospect of losing the majority of PAS direct appointees, and, therefore, this structure’s controllability in case of Muntean’s exclusion. In other words, the management structure of the first “reformed” body in the justice system, which had been created for several months, was collapsing. It is clear that the authorities were not ready for this. However, further threats from the representatives of the judiciary about possible recall of the elected SCM members followed, and the Council’s work was paralyzed.
Two institutions that had been formed by the authorities for so long – the Pre-Vetting Commission and the Superior Council of Magistracy – immediately lost their legitimacy in the eyes of the public, and not only the domestic one. On 21 September, the European Association of Judges (AEJ) unanimously adopted a resolution in which it expressed serious concern about the ruling party’s policy, which has put Moldova’s judicial system at risk. The methods of its reform through the “pre-vetting” mechanism with targeted discrediting and attacks on judges by politicians and the media were criticized, calling for their revision.
Realizing that the image of both the renewed composition of the SCM and the Pre-Vetting Commission and the country’s top leadership was at stake, the PAS decided to sacrifice Muntean, forcing him to resign. The whole composition of the SCM also unanimously opposed their former colleague.
However, Muntean decided to drag the other participants into the maelstrom of the scandal, blaming both the commission and the prosecutor’s office for the incident. In addition to the claims already made by Olesea Stamate against the Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office, this caused a new outburst of strife between the groups of influence in the ruling party that control the law enforcement agencies. Veronica Dragalin’s office tried to defend itself by stating that it had analyzed and provided additional information on the candidates to the SCM only at the request of the pre-vetting commission.
In order to assuage the society and to leave unscathed the profile parliamentary commission headed by Olesea Stamate, as well as the Pre-Vetting Commission, hearings were organized with all parties involved to analyze the reasons why the filters failed.
However, the hearings at which representatives of law enforcement agencies and the parliament were shifting responsibilities shed light on new evidence of the legal cudgel’s use for political purposes, when people can be kept under control for years using procedural gaps in the criminal law. In the case of Iulian Muntean, it happened that his case and the cases of over 70 other citizens were put under the table precisely when PAS came to power. All this is just the tip of the iceberg of opportunities for abuses committed under the guise of introducing European standards. At the same time, the authors of the justice reforms openly messed up when it turned out that the bodies of the prosecutor’s office and the National Anticorruption Centre could not hand over all the available official materials to the Pre-Vetting Commission, which does not have the status of a state body, and thus insure the authorities against imminent failure.
However, the authors of the reforms shifted the blame, saying that the reason was in the very imperfection of the justice system, which the authorities tried to reform, and therefore the efforts in this field should be even doubled.
In the absence of Veronica Dragalin at the parliamentary hearings, her department got smacked the most for allegedly concealing the fact of Iulian Muntean’s criminal prosecution. The emotional response of the anticorruption chief at the department’s website only fueled the fire. It turned out that the officer of the National Anticorruption Centre, who was involved in the Muntean case in 2018, was employed in the secretariat of the Pre-Vetting Commission, and the person responsible for conducting both operational analyses (in 2018 and 2023) regarding the former SCM member was the same person. On this basis, the office of Dragalin initiated criminal proceedings against the Anticorruption Centre.
Amid a wave of criticism at home and abroad, calls by opinion leaders to stop the stalled reform and another round of hostility between groups of influence within the PAS, a decision was made to ramp up pressure on the justice system. On 26 September, Maia Sandu signed a decree dismissing Alexandr Stoianoglo from the post of Prosecutor General, arguing that “the courts’ decision on the legality of his dismissal is delayed” while Moldova needs to speed up the fulfillment of its “obligations to meet the conditions” of the European Union. Obviously, the authorities simply didn’t want to wait for the ECHR verdict, where Stoianoglo had filed a lawsuit, demonstrating not only their readiness to continue the justice “reform”, but also to oppose European structures, including the Judicial Association and the ECHR.