Damien Phillips is a public affairs consultant.
The Government’s current focus on Russia as a major challenge to our national security must widen to include supposedly trusted partners on the frontiers of the European Union.
The breakdown of the rule of law in Romania is going from bad to worse. Its rapid development into a mafia state, dominated by an out-of-control intelligence service, makes this ‘mini Russia”, so foolishly brought into the EU, a growing menace to our security.
Since I first wrote about Romania’s spiral back into tyranny in ConHome in 2016, the country has continued to deteriorate – a descent that has not gone unnoticed in the British press. Roger Boyes, a foreign correspondent for 35 years and Diplomatic Editor for The Times, described it as “the EU’s outlaw state”. David Clark, a former special advisor to Labour Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, has highlighted the abuses of power in the country and the risk that turning a blind eye to them would encourage other European nations to follow its example.
Those outlets in the Romanian media that have not been infiltrated by its sinister intelligence service are blowing the lid on shocking scandals perpetrated by both the service, and the country’s anti-corruption agency, on a daily basis.
It’s now becoming increasingly clear that Romania’s Secret Intelligence Service (SRI) and its Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) are behaving in ways akin to Putin’s ‘thugocracy’. They are now more powerful than Romania’s weak and divided Parliament, which is struggling in vain to rein them in. The two agencies combined amount to a mafia state, exerting a malevolent influence on every aspect of Romania’s politics, judiciary, and civil society through a combination of fear, intimidation, and lawfare – the malign use of the legal system to destroy opponents.
In recent months, a Romanian Parliamentary Commission has been looking into the relationship between the DNA and the SRI. With corruption such a crippling problem in Romania and a continual source of distrust in public institutions, it was hoped that the DNA could spearhead a crackdown – aided by intelligence from the SRI.
Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that the two organisations are securing prosecutions with little regard to the rule of law and due process. Instead, they are using the judicial system as a weapon to target political enemies, dissidents, and leading business people whose assets are ripe for plunder.
Appearing before the commission, a key whistle-blower demonstrated the scale of the operation. Former SRI Colonel Daniel Dragomir was a highly decorated officer, serving in the SRI for over 12 years. In 2005, he was awarded the Military Virtue Order, one of the country’s highest military honours, for securing the release of journalists kidnapped in Iraq. He revealed the vast scope of the SRI’s wiretapping programme. Since 2015, over 20,000 wiretaps have been carried out per year by the SRI on behalf of the DNA – ten times those carried out in the name of national security and an intrusion into the privacy of ordinary citizens on a colossal scale.
He went on to testify about the repeated efforts by the SRI to undermine the independence of the judiciary – led by those at the very highest levels of the organisation. Dumitru Dumbrava, SRI’s Secretary General, was alleged to have used social media to contact judges, prosecutors and journalists involved in ongoing investigations. Through a series of a meetings, they were pressured to secure convictions with the leverage of friendship, coercion, blackmail, or the promise of promotion.
Despite employing a series of covers including a fake VK account (a Russia-based social network) to avoid detection, Dumbrava’s actions eventually came to light in the Romanian media and he was forced to admit his wrongdoing before the Commission, with Parliament calling for his demotion. With such a high-level official involved so directly in attempting to influence decisions in favour of the prosecution, it has laid bare the extent of what is increasingly seen as a nefarious alliance between the DNA and SRI.
The treatment of Colonel Dragomir, who has spoken publicly about his concerns in the press, is indicative of a breakdown in the country’s rule of law in Romania. After coming forward he was immediately met with a series of allegations and trumped-up charges from the DNA, before being subject to six month’s pre-trial detention in Romania’s squalid and overcrowded prison system. He highlights a report by the US-based NGO Fair Trials International which found that the DNA repeatedly fails to uphold the standards on pre-trial detention laid out by the European Court of Human Rights. Pre-trial detainees are regularly put through extended periods of detention, tantamount to a jail sentence prior to any conviction, and routinely mistreated, often to extract evidence later deemed admissible in court.
Reports from the Romanian Ombudsman’s office, the Association for the Defence of Human Rights in Romania, and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, all show that the Romanian penal system falls short of basic standards on the prevention of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. This has led to serious violations of human rights and it is into this appalling system that the SRI/DNA nexus are knowingly sending suspects that they have conspired to unlawfully convict.
As Dragomir points out, the DNA/SRI collusion, the use of mass wiretaps, erosion of judicial independence and ‘targeted reputational smears’ not only undermines any legitimate and much-needed anti-corruption efforts, but poisons Romania’s entire democratic system. And yet we have seen nothing from the EU or the UK government that would indicate they are even aware of the problem. Britain’s Ambassador in the country voices nothing but praise for the anti-corruption efforts and the EU’s Jean Claude Juncker claims that “the Romanian justice system is working, which cannot be said about all member states.”
As recent events in Salisbury showed, when the rule of law breaks down elsewhere in the world it can have drastic consequences here at home. Romania’s membership of the European Arrest Warrant – which commits EU member states to treat each other’s legal systems with equivalence and reciprocity – allows its corrupt agencies to wield their weaponised justice system anywhere in the EU, with almost no safeguards and to bypass the more stringent scrutiny we apply to legal requests from other rogue states like Russia. Lord Robathan, a former Minister of Defence and SAS officer, argues that:
“Whilst the UK Government and judiciary are now alive to the behaviour of the Russian state apparatus, both should look very closely at the situation in Romania. In the same way as the Securitate emulated the KGB, so the SRI may be learning from the FSB. Just because Romania is an EU state does not mean that the rule of law is respected there.”
British residents who cross swords with the Romanian deep state are vulnerable to falling victim, as Stuart Ramsay, Sky News’s Chief Correspondent, found out after producing a documentary there only to find on his return that he was being threatened with extradition to face charges of ‘spreading false information’. Romanian authorities are still pursuing prosecutions against his sources in the country and continue to pressure the UK government to cooperate with their efforts to go after Ramsay and his team.
With the UK debating whether to maintain membership of the European Arrest Warrant after Brexit, potentially binding us to Romania’s justice system for the foreseeable future, it’s time for the government to recognise the scale of Romanian lawfare and where it might lead in the future. Unlike Russia, Romania is still susceptible to diplomatic pressure and so we must join with our international partners to stop this menace before the country becomes a clear and present danger to our national security.