Romania rapped for prison brutality

A damning judgement from the European Court of Human Rights has put judicial reform in Romania back under the spotlight.

Bucharest has been ordered to pay 46,000 euros in compensation to an imprisoned lawyer who suffered "inhuman and degrading treatment" at the hands of the authorities.

The European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, in Strasbourg condemned Romania for injuries and psychological torture suffered by Alexandru Pantea while he was held in custody between 1994-5, and for failing to carry out an effective inquiry into his complaints.

The case has put the Romanian judiciary under the spotlight once again, and has prompted a new debate over the long-delayed reform of the legal system.

As well as potentially opening the floodgates for a series of similar claims against the authorities, some analysts believe that Romania’s application to join the European Union may be jeopardised if the judicial system is not overhauled soon.

Referring to the case and its aftermath, opposition deputy, Emil Bloc, said: "This is the price we have to pay for having delayed the reform of the judiciary," adding that the EU, which Romania hopes to join in 2007, has repeatedly called on the government to address the issue.

Pantea, a former public prosecutor, was arrested in 1994 on assault charges, but was released a year later after his detention was ruled "unlawful". He was then charged with causing bodily harm, and committed for trial. The case is still pending.

Following his release, the lawyer lodged a complaint that his arrest had been marred by procedural irregularities, as the warrant had been issued by a prosecutor, not a judge.

However, it was his experiences at the hands of the prison authorities that drew the strongest condemnation from ECHR. "Three inmates beat me up one night until I passed out, and none of the guards came to rescue me," Pantea remembered.

"When one finally appeared, he just handcuffed me and left me under the bed, covered in blood, for nearly 48 hours."

The lawyer told the media that when he was finally allowed to see a doctor, he was judged to be "seriously ill" from his injuries, and it was decided to send him to one of the capital’s hospitals.

But instead of being transferred by ambulance, he was forced to take a train from the Jilava prison hospital in the northern town of Oradea.
"It took me three days and nights to cross the country and get to the capital – and I was losing blood all the way," Pantea said.

"Not only was I denied medical assistance during the journey, I was forced to stand in the wagon, crammed in with another 200 inmates."

EHCR’s judgement – which was announced last month, eight years after the application was first lodged – ruled that the authorities had violated several areas of the European Convention on Human Rights.

It found that the authorities had neglected to protect Pantea, by placing him in a cell with dangerous convicted prisoners and then subjecting him to a long and painful trip to hospital, and had failed to carry out a detailed inquiry following his complaints.

ECHR also found that the warrant used to arrest Pantea should have been issued by a judge, not a prosecutor, that it had not been necessary to detain him for four months before bringing him before a judge, and that the whole process had not been carried out quickly enough.

The court awarded Pantea 40,000 euros in damages and 6,000 euro in costs.

Following the judgement, several prisoners have complained that they too were arrested on warrants issued by prosecutors rather than judges, and therefore should also be released and entitled to compensation.

In a bid to limit the damage, the head of Romania's prosecution service now insists that a judge approves any arrest warrant issued by a prosecutor within three days.

However, this may not be enough to satisfy critics who claim that extensive reforms must take place if further abuses – and the high-profile court cases which follow them – are to be avoided.

While Prime Minister Adrian Nastase has publicly apologised to Pantea for the suffering he endured in custody, the authorities appear to be dragging their feet over the issue of reform. As yet, there has been no official announcement as to whether this will take place, and if so, when.

ECHR is currently dealing with more than 170 cases relating to alleged human rights abuses in Romania as well as the restitution of property seized during the communist era. Several international organisations have recently criticised Bucharest’s justice system.

Amnesty International's 2003 report noted that the number of people alleged to have been beaten up while in police custody is on the rise, and described prison conditions as "inhuman and degrading."

The Helsinki Committee's latest report on the country’s penal system reveals that jails are overcrowded and draws attention to the "deplorable state" of the cells and the shortage of medical staff.

The organisation recently warned that by continuing to infringe European legislation, the judiciary places Romania in a difficult position – especially where international integration is concerned.

"It is hard to understand how an institution which should enforce the law can condone illegal actions," the committee noted.

Romania was left off the list of countries expected to join the EU in 2004 owing to national problems of corruption, red tape, the judiciary and an unstable economy.

However, the European Commission did offer hope that it could be on track for membership in 2007 if it is successful in introducing reforms.