A Romanian scandal that threatens press freedom that the UK could stop in its tracks
Romania is not particularly high profile. It is best known for Bram Stoker's Dracula stories and the infamous rule of Communist President Nicolae Ceaușescu overthrown and killed in a revolution in 1989.
Now it is seen as a NATO ally, a democracy with free elections and in European Union circles as being tough on corruption.
But beneath the surface there is growing evidence that Romania is about to go the same way as Hungary and Turkey with a crackdown on the freedom of the press, arbitrary arrests and flouting the rule of law.
The issue is becoming deeply personal - and this blog has decided to take up the issue - over the plight of a German businessman who with his father owns Romania's oldest newspaper, Romania Libra. The paper has been a thorn in the side 0f successive governments by exposing corruption and political intrigue. I have written both a news story and a large feature in Tribune this week on the case.
Alexander Adamescu currently lives in St John's Wood in London. His father Dan is in hospital in Romania while serving a prison sentence for corruption based on the uncorroborated evidence of one person that he tried to bribe an official. His son is now - two years later -facing a similar charge after a flimsy examination of the evidence in a 30 minute hearing called at two hours notice in his absence.
The Romanians are using the European Arrest Warrant - which faces only a very limited challenge in the British courts- to try and extradite him to Romania and this spring there will be a court hearing.
Alexander Adamescu has applied for political asylum to Theresa May, has asked the all party Romania committee to take up his case in Parliament and appealed to the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn as a backbencher took up his father's case in 2014 and was heavily critical of Romania's judicial process. So far British politicians have not acted.
In the last year there have been more sinister developments - reminiscent of Russia's secret service - affecting his family. He believes his wife, Adrianna, was the subject of a bungled kidnapping outside his St John's Wood flat this March.
As she got out of her car and approached her flat two masked men attacked her and tried to drag her to a waiting car.
She said: “They were both wearing bandanas and gloves. They drove in a Mini Cooper with fake number plates - as I was later told by the police - and didn’t steal anything from me despite the fact that I was wearing diamond earrings, and had my car keys in my hands.”
“When they approached me, I threw myself to the ground, and fought with them until my neighbour Kymone Hansson, hearing my screaming and came running out to me. At the same time, a cab driver with a passenger in the back seat pulled over next to me and called the police. That was the moment I was saved. The two men ran to their car and quickly drove away”.
The Met Police were able to trace the car but not the people and the case has been left on file.
Later there was a second incident which can be directly attributed to the Romanian authorities. Adrianna was returning from Bucharest and was stopped at the airport before she could board the plane. The authorities said her four year son could not leave the country because he was Romanian (he was born in the UK). As he is four they could not detain him so she quickly left the airport with him and drove across the border to Bulgaria and returned from there to the UK.
The issue of prison conditions in Romania- where nearly 500 people have died over the last five years often due to the lack of medical treatment - has already been challenged in the High Court in London by the international human rights lawyer, Ben Emmerson ( who also represented Alexander Livenenko’s widow in the recent public inquiry into his poisoning by plutonium). He has taken up the cases of other people being extradited by the Romanians and the prison.
Romania’s cramped and unsanitary prison conditions mean that pre-trial detention has also become a kind of punishment. Prison standards are so bad that between 1998 and 2015, the European Court of Human Rights found Romania guilty of 178 violations of Article 3 of the ECHR prohibiting inhuman or degrading treatment. The court recorded 27 violations in 2015.
Serious questions about the role of the independent judiciary, the misuse of the European Arrest Warrant and the freedom of an independent press to investigate the government are all at stake. Even the role of major accounting firms working in Romania like KPMG have been questioned.
Journalists on the paper have published an open letter accusing KPMG of aiding and abetting members of the Romanian government to rig insolvency hearings to destroy and silence their newspaper, infringing on the publication’s fundamental rights to freedom of expression.
“There is no doubt about it – this is a case of privatized censorship. KPMG has been used as a front by certain members of the Romanian government to take over control or shut us down,” said Sabin Orcan, chief editor of România Liberă. “Our publication has survived more than 140 years of the worst types of oppression, including during the Soviet period. But who knew it would be the accountants who would deliver the death blow to freedom of the press in Romania?”
KPMG, to be fair, did find problems with the insurance company that bankrolled the paper, but recommended changes that amounted to a rescue plan for the company. The government vetoed the plan which shows where they stand.
All this suggests that the British government should act to stop this move. Given that it is committed to leaving the EU it should be possible to overrule this action or grant him political asylum.