By Christina L. Petru
Following her January 18 meeting in Brussels with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, Maia Sandu—Moldova’s newly inaugurated president—reaffirmed her commitment to a European future for Europe’s poorest country. According to the Moldovan presidency’s website, Sandu “stressed that for us, European integration is not an abstract term—it is a work plan to build a state with functional, strong institutions.” Given Sandu’s exceptional record in opposition as prime minister, and landslide victory over pro-Russian incumbent Igor N. Dodon in presidential elections on November 17, there is no reason to doubt the president’s sincerity. Yet human rights developments in the case of Moldova’s Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Viorel Morari, which have surfaced in recent days, may well prove the first test of her term in office.
On January 19, as President Sandu continued her talks in Brussels with European Union Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi, Moldova’s Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Viorel Morari was asked to attend a very different sort of meeting. Morari was told that the purpose of the discussion would be to provide evidence—under oath—to the office of Moldova’s Prosecutor General, Alexandru Stoianoglo.
A source close to the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor has stated that Morari was suspicious of this additional request for evidence. While ordinarily presidents travel regularly, COVID-19 has grounded foreign diplomacy. Social distancing has also complicated dialogue amongst Moldova’s new reformers, due to fear that Dodon appointees can still intercept information. With Sandu in Brussels, and no way to safely discuss this new request for testimony, Morari attended the meeting. When he arrived, he was summarily arrested and placed in detention.
Sadly, there is nothing unusual about the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s treatment. This is the second time he has been held extralegally in a regular prison. Following Dodon’s defeat in the presidential election, Moldovan authorities have generated countless charges in a desperate effort to silence a prosecutor whom the international community holds in respect. Morari has developed a reputation as a diligent and decent prosecutor, whose pursuit of cases involving high-level political corruption make his behavior anomalous in one of the continent’s most corrupt countries. Morari likely made history when he became the only anti-corruption prosecutor to investigate cases against both Igor N. Dodon and Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is the former leader of the Democratic Party, and the former president’s sworn enemy.
Both President Sandu and Dodon’s appointees know that this makes for bad media optics—especially on the day of President Joseph R. Biden’s inauguration. Yet they chose to ignite the ire of the European Union because Morari has overstepped a line. According to remarks made by Morari to media outlets in Moldova, he was allegedly investigating evidence that Stoianoglo’s wife had been made a shareholder in several companies owned, or once linked, to Veaceslav Platon. Mr. Platon is a former lawmaker who was sentenced in April 2017 to 18 years imprisonment for fraud and large-scale money laundering in a case dubbed “Grand Theft Moldova” in the media—where approximately $3 million was stolen from three financial institutions. Stoianoglo himself personally appealed Platon’s conviction, allowing him to walk free from prison—more than 14 years early.
Morari meanwhile, remains behind bars, and it is now deeply important that President Sandu and the international community demand that Mr. Morari be afforded basic human rights. President Sandu prophesized these events, long before they affected Morari, and others.
Sandu’s courageous opposition to Stoianoglo’s appointment both characterized her short term as the country’s only reforming post-Communist prime minister, and also led to her removal from office. She was forced to resign on November 12, 2019—as she would not cut deals in smoky rooms with the corrupt officials who dominate Moldovan politics. Then EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn tweeted that he was “deeply worried” about Sandu’s summary dismissal. He added that “any change to her resolute action to reform the country over the last five months would have severe consequences on EU support.”
On the evening of the no confidence vote, Sandu herself promised hundreds of protesters gathered outside the parliament building “[that] we will continue the struggle, we will not give up. The struggle is between those who want to control justice and the prosecutor, and those who want freedom and fair justice.”
Viorel Morari took on Sandu’s struggle, and must now be granted the “freedom and fair justice” the president promised. For Moldova to become a functioning European democracy with transparent institutions, embassies, and the president herself must join together in support of campaigners like the anti-corruption prosecutor.
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