The IHF Annual Report 1998
IHF Focus: Freedom of expression; misconduct by law enforcement officials; prison conditions; freedom of religion; security services.
After the 1996 parliamentary and presidential elections, expectations about positive developments in the human rights situation in Romania were high.
During the first half of 1997, many improvements took place. The openness of the parliament and of the government towards the civil society became manifest, thus enabling NGOs to have some impact upon a number of important decisions. Authorities took measures to ameliorate the situation of orphans, the prison system and the judiciary.
Perhaps the most important success of the new government was related to minority issues. The inclusion of the Hungarian Party in the government was a sign of normality. In addition to that, several legislative changes were made in order to grant again the national minorities the rights which they had enjoyed for decades and to fulfill Romania's international commitments.
At the same time, the extreme nationalistic language used by many politicians and their extremist behavior required sanctions. The Association for the Protection of Human Rights in Romania-Helsinki Committee (APADOR-CH) noted that the Romanian parliament should also keep pace with the government and ensure minority rights protection.
Yet, in spite of all these achievements, the situation in many other fields of human rights remained unchanged, seriously affecting the country's human rights record. Such problems included libel charges against critical journalists, issues related to national security, police misconduct, and religious intolerance.
The penal code and the penal procedure code, adopted during the communist regime and amended several times since 1990, still fell seriously short of European standards. A recent amendment increased the terms of punishments substantially which resulted also in the extension of maximum terms of pre-trial detention. This allowed for an extensive length of pre-trial detention. Of importance was the fact that people in pre-trial detention were subject to a more restrictive regime than actual convicts.
Same-sex relations between consenting adults continued to be met with abuse perpetrated by state authorities because the penal code included vague wordings without legal definitions, maintained separate articles for the same deed ("enticing minors" and "rape") and denied the right of homosexuals to freedom of expression and association.
Freedom of Expression
Freedom of expression was restricted through legal provisions relating to "insult," "libel," "offense against authority" and "outrage," all of which carried possible prison terms of up to five years. Particularly journalists were affected; several were sentenced to terms in prison, in violation of the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights.
The constitutionally guaranteed right to free access to information was violated; no legislation was adopted to implement the constitutional provision. Laws such as the Law on National Archives or the Law on the Romanian Intelligence Service further infringed on that right. Moreover, the obsolete Law on State Secrets was not explicitly repealed. In some cases, business managers invoked provisions of this law to turn down journalists' requests for information. A bill detailing a new law on state and job-related secrets was adopted by the Senate in 1996 and was pending in the Chamber of Deputies as of the end of 1997: if adopted, it would introduce restrictions almost as severe as the previous law. APADOR-CH urged the parliament not to adopt the law on state secrets and to reject all provisions on job-related secrets, without passing at the same time a law on access to information.
Misconduct by Law Enforcement Officials
Positive changes within the police force at the leadership level were apparent in 1997. However, APADOR-CH continued to receive information about abuses committed by local police officers. Only a few abuses were punished by the military courts (which were responsible for dealing with police misconduct), and where an officer was punished, the sentence was milder than that handed down to a civilian found guilty on the same charge. At the grass-roots level, the changes within the police were mainly personnel changes or job rotation: little attention was paid to matters of principle.
APADOR-CH noted that legislative changes were essential, including the demilitarization of the police force and its transformation into a genuine law enforcement body.
The controversial issues of custody and pre-trial detention continued to provide a focus of dispute. According to the constitution, the penal procedure code and the Law on Police, police could hold an individual for up to 24 hours without raising charges. In addition to this, the Law on Police (art. 16b) also allowed law enforcement officials to "conduct" to the police station individuals who were suspected of having committed a crime and who could not produce their identity card. For identification purposes, the police could hold them for another 24 hours. Moreover, the Law on Police did not specify the formal procedures for "conducting" to a police station, while "holding" was regulated by the penal law.
Article 171 of the penal procedure code provided the right to legal counsel during the "legal investigation and the trial," but not for the time when a person was "conducted" or held by the police. Moreover, the most frequent form of misconduct involved the police abuse of the possibility to "conduct" an individual to the police station; many people who simply were not carrying identity papers were "conducted" to a police station even if they were not suspected of any crime. Only a passport was regarded as a valid identity document.
The status of police officers was still not regulated, although a bill should have been submitted to the parliament long before. A draft law, which would have granted to police officers various privileges was withdrawn after the November 1996 elections. APADOR-CH believed that the failure to adopt a appropriate law on the police force's status was related to the delicate issue of the demilitarization of the Romanian police, and the organization published concrete proposals on this issue.
Police issued fines to alleged offenders without informing them: some found out only when they were summoned to court where the unpaid fine was converted into a prison term.
On occasion, the police fired shotguns in places where passers-by were endangered by their actions.
In most cases, the Military Prosecutor's Offices failed to bring charges, citing insufficient evidence. However, "sufficient" medical evidence, for example, was difficult to obtain because only certificates issued by the Forensic Institute were considered valid. Still, APADOR-CH was aware of several cases in which the Forensic Institute had refused to issue certificates after victims had said that the perpetrator was a police officer. Moreover, the only witnesses of police abuse at police stations were often police officers who would not testify against their peers.
Civilian witnesses often refused to testify, fearing police retaliation, or were pressured by the police to withdraw or change their statements.
If the military prosecutor decided not to indict those accused of abuse, the only avenue of appeal for the victim was the superior military prosecutor or prosecutor general, a course which met generally with little success. The law offered no possibility for a review by a court of law.
APADOR-CH repeatedly proposed that the penal procedure code be modified to allow for judicial review in such cases in order both to guarantee free access to justice and to offer an additional guarantee that investigations would be conducted thoroughly.
APADOR-CH documented approximately 20 cases of police abuse in 1997.
The Constanta County Hospital, which had admitted the boy because of his need for medical treatment, released him immediately as "perfectly healthy" after the doctors learned that the police were involved. However, a tomographic examination carried out almost two months after the incident nonetheless certified the existence of a "pronounced diffuse cerebral oedema." The child also started suffering from facial tics and vertigo and he developed changes in his personality, e.g. becoming aggressive, but remained unable to talk about what had happened to him that night until weeks kater. The Constanta Military Prosecutor's Office ordered him to undergo psychiatric examination but the mother refused because this would have involved a three-day stay in hospital for her son and she would have had to pay for the examination herself. It later transpired that the police had not taken the boy directly back home upon finding him, but had first shown him to several people accused of involvement in a robbery. The police had also threatened him to throw him off a bridge, while at the police station he had been beaten and kicked in order to make him "confess" and give information on other alleged robbers. At the end of 1997, the police officers accused of the abuses were prosecuted.
In 1997, the General Police Inspectorate, through its then chief General Pavel Abraham, took first attempts towards establishing a normal working relationship with APADOR-CH. The Inspectorate had frozen relations in 1994, following a documentary entitled "When Some Policemen Become Militiamen Again," based on materials provided by APADOR-CH and broadcast by the public television channel.
In July 1997, another conflict arose when the daily Curierul national published several cases of police abuse, again basing its reporting on APADOR-CH information. The press office of the Ministry of the Interior responded by accusing the organization of being the only NGO that set out deliberately to present a biased image of the Ministry of Interior, the prosecutors' offices and courts of law.
In 1997, the penitentiary administration took measures to improve conditions in prisons and to initiate penitentiary reform. A working group consisting of prison commanders and experts from the General Directorate of Penitentiaries drew up a series of proposals on how to carry out prison sentences, the status of penitentiary staff and the creation of the probation officer. The recommendations included improvements such as alternative punishments, demilitarization of penitentiary staff, setting up a probation service providing assistance and control system for released detainees, and broader autonomy for each penitentiary. The proposals have to be approved by the government and will then be discussed in the two chambers of the parliament. As this process is slow, the penitentiaries will continue to function for a long time on the basis of outdated regulations which run counter to European standards.
The February prison revolts reflected the complexity of the penitentiary situation in Romania.
On 16 February, inmates of the Bucharest penitentiary started a protest, claiming that the prison authorities had failed to inform them about the new system of release on parole decided by the parliament in November 1996, extending the compulsory prison period before allowing prisoners to become eligible for parole. The protests extended to other prisons and further problems were taken up, including overlong trials, overcrowding and the bad quality of food. Some detainees went on hunger strike. The revolts were widely covered by the media.
On 23 February, the General Directorate of Penitentiaries decided to employ force to quash the protests in Bucharest: 500 prison officials stormed the penitentiary, using rubber batons and tear gas.
The APADOR-CH representatives were given permission to visit the Bucharest prison on 27 February. They regretted that they were not allowed to enter the cells and speak to inmates but they were allowed to visit the penitentiary surgery and had access to part of the medical records.
APADOR-CH representatives noted that about 20 detainees had been given treatment for injuries which could have been inflicted by force. No such cases had been recorded before the intervention of the prison authorities.
Following the visit, APADOR-CH noted that the newly adopted provisions on sentencing procedure had been read over the loudspeakers in the penitentiary several days before the revolt. It stated that the intervention of the Bucharest penitentiary staff to settle the conflict was clearly justified, but that there were serious indications that the prison staff had used excessive force to calm down the revolt. It recommended that the Ministry of Justice and the Military Prosecutor's Office start investigations into the methods used during this intervention.
Later in 1997, APADOR-CH received new information that there had been large-scale retaliation against prisoners who had participated in the revolt. The prison administration had allowed some 70-100 inmates to be severely beaten with wooden clubs and other objects by approximately 70 masked individuals. The prisoners were also made to pick up pieces of glass, cobblestones, etc., from the ground in order to humiliate them. Then they were transported to other cells than their own. Few of them were taken to the surgeries to receive medical care and even fewer to the penitentiary hospital, located next to the penitentiary. Similar incidents took place also in the succeeding days. Some detainees lodged complaints with the Military Prosecutor's Office, denouncing the inhuman and degrading treatment to which they had been subjected.
According to the investigations carried out by a commission of the Senate, the inmates of the Bucharest penitentiary had not been subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.
Freedom of Religion
The Romanian constitution both guarantees freedom of conscience and of religion and calls for tolerance towards religious denominations and their independence from the state. Yet, several developments in the field of religious freedom were not in compliance with the letter and spirit of the constitution.
The restitution of the real estates of the Greek-Catholic Church remained unsolved. The church's property had been confiscated by the communist regime and donated to the Orthodox Church which had thereafter aggressively refused to return the property to the legal owner. Also, the Romanian parliament failed in its attempt to regulate the situation.
The State Secretariat for Religious Denominations continuded to refuse to recognize, for example, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Baha'i community on the basis of a law issued in 1948 by the communist regime. As a result, a number of religious denominations operating legally all over the world were deemed illegal in Romania. APADOR-CH urged the adoption of a new law on religious association which would be in compliance with international standards for freedom of religion.
The inappropriate legislation on national security which regulated the operation of various secret services in Romania, some of them without a legal basis, remained unchanged. In the summer, changes were made in the leadership of the Romanian Intelligence Service and the Foreign Intelligence Service, but without appropriate legislation abuses were still possible at any time. Furthermore, there were no changes regarding the Supreme Council for the Defense of the Country - an institution which had been used since its creation to supervise and control the activities of all secret services in the country, without any public accountability.
Parliamentary control over security structures remained seriously inadequate and no control at all existed over such structures on behalf of civil society.