“People of integrity in the system need to step up and fight. Fight openly, even if it means fighting against their own colleagues.” President Maia Sandu on justice reform
Justice reform will move forward, and prosecutors and judges who cannot demonstrate their integrity will continue to be removed from the system, says President Maia Sandu in an interview with ZdG. People of integrity must step forward and fight, even if it means fighting against their own colleagues. If this does not happen, the authorities will intervene more harshly, promises the head of state. ZdG spoke to Maia Sandu about the processes that are hampering justice reform and the solutions the authorities are counting on to make the reform a reality.
– Four judges of the Supreme Court of Justice annulled on Tuesday, August 1, 21 decisions of the Pre-Vetting Commission on candidates for the CSM and CSP. How do you comment on these decisions and what do you think needs to be done next to get out of this ongoing crisis in the justice system?
– The decisions taken ‘on a conveyor belt’ by the SCJ to annul the decisions of the External Integrity Assessment Commission for Judges are illegal. We are seeing yet another attempt by the system to put the brakes on justice reform and efforts to remove corrupt people from the system. These decisions confirm once again that the system does not want to clean itself from within and that our approach of external evaluation is correct. This does not mean that there are no honest people in the system, but as far as we can see, very few of them are involved in this effort to clean up justice. This is not the first obstacle that corrupt judges have created and probably not the last. But despite these obstacles, reform is moving forward. The Extraordinary External Review Commission will continue its work and remove judges and prosecutors who cannot prove their integrity from the system.
The crisis in justice will continue until we get the system in order. The fight we are fighting is a fight for survival. It is about our survival as a democratic state with a future in the European Union, which can only be achieved by reforming justice and reducing corruption. On the other side of the fence are the corrupt judges and prosecutors, who have been getting undeserved benefits all these years and who are clinging on to the rotten system they have built, because they fear that otherwise they will have to answer for their abuses. They have become rich and untouchable by injustices, and their aim is to continue exactly that. They are supported by other individuals who want to perpetuate corruption – criminal groups, politicians who promise them that reforms will be reversed if they compromise changes in the justice system and the current government.
Justice reform is not just a lofty goal. Injustice affects every family in Moldova. When we look at the terrible road accidents that rock the country, we see that they are caused by drivers who have committed multiple serious violations of the rules, who have several criminal cases closed. Dozens of people – prosecutors, judges, police officers, lawyers – have been involved in schemes by which these drivers have avoided punishment. Entire families are destroyed by corruption in the justice system. These tragedies shock us, but we also fail to see the corrupt who directly contributed to the crime punished. Because the law says that only judges can convict judges. And from what we can see, the justice system has decided to go against all citizens and fight to the end in favour of the criminals. They hide behind the independence of justice. But the independence of justice is to enforce the law, not to protect the illegalities of judges. That is why it is so important to get corrupt judges out of the system.
– How was it possible that two years into the PAS government, these decisions were taken by Mariana Pitic, a famous judge, after buying a Porsche with 10 thousand lei, and Tamara Chișcă-Doneva, who until recently had a criminal record for illicit enrichment (also recently closed) and several lost cases at the ECtHR?
– The government does not appoint or dismiss judges. I, as President, have refused to confirm several judges for whom there are questions of integrity. But according to the law, the final decision belongs to the Superior Council of Magistracy. Corrupt judges, including those at the SCJ, can only be removed by the SJC or following evidence from the prosecution. The SCM is only at the formation stage and we are watching closely to see if the new composition has the character to clean up the system and the prosecution, even if it talks about the problem of corrupt judges, does not send them to the dock. The institutions are still dominated by the corrupt, they are weak. That is why an extraordinary external evaluation of judges and prosecutors is needed. The evaluation process of judges at the SCJ starts in the coming weeks.
– What is missing to bring justice reform to completion? The world cannot understand why it is not succeeding, since there is a president, a prime minister and a parliament who, at least at the declarative level, have the same goals and the same visions. What more is needed?
– We need time and unity from all those who understand how important justice reform is for the present and future of the country. More courage is needed from the honest people in the system. People of integrity in the system need to step up and fight. To fight openly, even if it means fighting against their own colleagues, to take responsibility, so that justice is done for our citizens, so that the law is respected, so that the corrupt are removed from the system and even put in prison. If this does not happen, we will have to intervene more, more harshly. We are building a democratic state and we have a responsibility to act democratically. But with every obstacle put in the way by corrupt judges, with every abuse by them, the need for tougher interventions becomes more and more obvious. We will go all the way, we will insist until we get the corrupt out of the system. At the same time, to succeed, we must show unity. There are no miracle solutions. We learn from the experience of other countries and we learn from our own experience. Where things don’t work, we correct them and move forward.
This will be a long fight. In Albania, for example, the process of cleaning up the judicial system took 8 years. In Romania, it took almost 10 years from the time the reform of anti-corruption institutions was initiated to the first convictions in cases of grand corruption. We don’t have that kind of time, we need to move faster, not least because we want to become an EU member country by the end of this decade, but above all because Moldovans have been waiting for justice for too long. In the next two years, we must succeed in completing the process of cleaning up the system.
– In the same context, recently, even Veronica Dragalin, the head of the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, criticised the vetting process, to which more than 200 prosecutors and some 140 judges in key positions are to be subjected. How do you see these statements coming from the head of a key institution in the process of fighting corruption in our country and what are the solutions to make things work?
– The head of the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office admits that there are corrupt prosecutors, including in the institution she heads. We see that the prosecution cannot clean itself up. And the country doesn’t have time to wait a few more years for corrupt prosecutors’ cases to dust in court. They must be kicked out of the prosecutor’s office as soon as possible and stopped taking bribes and protecting thieves. The extraordinary external review is not ideal, but it is the only real and credible way to remove the corrupt from the system.
It is claimed that more prosecutors will leave the system if they are forced to pass the integrity test. This should not scare us. We don’t hold them in contempt. We will support and motivate, including financially, honest people who are truly dedicated to their work as prosecutors and judges. We do not accept blackmail from those who do not want to prove their integrity.
– And in general, lately, Mrs Dragalin’s name has appeared together with various accusations, related to her diploma, to her statements at that meeting with NAC officers and prosecutors. How do you see her work one year into her mandate? Have the expectations you had for the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office with Ms Dragalin at the head been confirmed or do you think there is room for improvement?
– Ms Dragalin won a competition to head the most important anti-corruption institution. The head of the PA correctly identified the fundamental problem and exposed it publicly – corruption within the prosecutor’s office and the judiciary. The expectation of society is that this problem will be solved. We must expect that people who are really fighting corruption will be attacked by those who do not want change. That is why it is important to strengthen our efforts. The fight against corruption in Moldova needs the united effort of all those who sincerely want to cleanse the country of corruption.
– Lately, the idea you announced earlier – a DNA on the Romanian model and an Anti-Corruption Court – has disappeared from the public space. Do you still support the creation of these institutions or have you given up, given that there have been critical voices, including in the ruling party?
– Not only do I support the creation of these institutions, but I insist that we have moved forward on this path. A few months ago, the experts of the Independent Anti-Corruption Advisory Committee made an analysis of the architecture of anti-corruption institutions in Moldova. They recommended separating the AP from the NAC and strengthening the capacity of the AP by increasing autonomy and resources. This is exactly the model we are going for and the law was amended by the Parliament to this effect a few days ago. The PA will get autonomy and more resources to deal with big corruption. But the most important are the people who will work in the PA. It depends on them whether this institution will become a real DNA or not.
With reference to the Anti-Corruption Court, I have sent the draft law to Parliament and the Venice Commission for their opinion. The draft is published on the Parliament and Presidency page for comments. The Anti-Corruption Court is designed to increase the speed at which corruption cases are examined in court. Citizens have a legitimate expectation – those who have committed fraud, corruption, to be convicted, to have their illegally acquired wealth confiscated, not to go to court once every 2-3 months for a joyride, after which they immediately return to their ordinary life in their luxury homes or go on expensive holidays.
– Lately, criticism of the ruling Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) has been mounting, especially over the justice reform, which seems to be failing by the day. What has PAS or you yourself done wrong in this reform? Perhaps you have relied on the wrong people to carry it out?
– Neither I nor, I assume, my colleagues in Parliament, expected justice reform to be quick and easy. There are some results – the return of the airport to state administration, the conviction of one of the billionaire thieves, but they are few. I understand people’s frustrations very well. We too are unhappy, we are insisting that things happen more quickly, we are making considerable efforts, we are allocating resources. But there is a lot of resistance to the system. The government is keen – as is normal in a democracy – to respect the independence of judges. On the other hand, many of them are not independent and defend each other. This vicious circle must be broken.
Criticism of the government is natural. Especially in the context of significant external challenges and difficult domestic issues that we need to address. We are honest people, we have good intentions, courage and the political will to get things right. We seek, we try, we correct and we move forward. Justice reform is a complicated endeavour. It is good to have a constant public debate on this important reform. But we need to have serious discussions, not superficial ones. The real problem is the widespread corruption in the system, the control that corrupt groups continue to exert, the low professionalism, the lack of a critical mass of honest and courageous people to make things change internally. The external evaluation will show how big the corruption problem is, we may end up in a situation where we have to replace more than half of the judges. And we will do that, even if it means a longer period of rebuilding the system until new people get the necessary experience. Corrupt judges and prosecutors understand that they will no longer be able to stay in the system and they are fighting hard against reform.
We intervene and overcome this resistance, while respecting the principle of the independence of justice. It is a reform that cannot be done with an axe, i.e. the solutions are not simple, it is good that we all understand this and engage in a constructive dialogue and a long-term effort. The more united we are in this effort, the faster we will achieve results.
– There is more and more information that Vladimir Plahotniuc is controlling more and more political and legal processes in Moldova, including through parties. Is there a risk that Plahotniuc, in one form or another, will return to power? What can and should state structures do to prevent such risks?
– We, together with the citizens, drove Plahotniuc from power and got him sanctioned internationally. I do not exclude that some opposition political parties are controlled or cooperate with Plahotniuc, but they do not influence the political processes at national level. These parties must already know that the illegal funding they receive can outlaw them. Similarly, they do not rule out the possibility that Plahotniuc is bribing judges and prosecutors to delay the examination of cases against him or to sabotage justice reform. This is precisely why we need an external assessment of the integrity of judges and prosecutors and their exclusion from the system.
– You are about to appoint Eugenia Guțul as a member of the Government. In the context of the new measures to combat the hybrid war, how appropriate is her presence, as an exponent of a pro-Russian group, at government meetings? What are you going to do next?
– We are a democratic country and I am guided by the legal provisions, even if in the case of the elections in ATU Gagauzia, the democratic processes were distorted and the responsible institutions could not prevent this. We acknowledge these shortcomings and we will continue to work to make institutions stronger and democratic processes fully respected. We will continue to take all measures to combat destabilising actions and to sanction those involved in these activities.
– Throughout this period, the lack of a sufficient number of professionals with integrity has been evident. If it were up to you, what would you do to provide state institutions with people of integrity?
– The country needs honest people and good professionals. We have already discussed the fact that anti-corruption institutions are not doing a very good job of sanctioning corruption in institutions, and where they are doing well, we see many court decisions restoring the guilty to office. The heads of institutions have a role to play in cleaning them up and we see that in some of them they have managed to get their house in order. When it comes to good professionals, we have to recognise that we have a shortage of professionals in many areas – in state institutions, in the private sector, even in the media, we are looking for very good professionals. This is a general problem and we need to address it as such. We need to invest more in the quality of education. We need to insist on policies that lead to increased labour productivity. We need to motivate people who work well. The government has proposed increasing salaries in ministries specifically to attract people of integrity and good professionals. But the government must also come up with measures against those who don’t do their work conscientiously, to sack those who don’t deliver results.