US urges Romania to defend independence of the judiciary

The United States on Saturday called on Romania to defend the rule of law, voicing concern over recent attacks against the independence of the judiciary.

"An independent judiciary is essential to a strong, predictable democracy ... so it is concerning when there are attacks on the independence of the judiciary, it is concerning when politicians of any party decide to challenge the independent underpinnings of the judiciary," said Victoria Nuland, US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, on a visit to Romania.

After years of impunity, several high ranking politicians --including former prime minister Adrian Nastase-- have been sentenced to jail for graft, a sign of the judiciary's growing independence, analysts say.

"You have made great strides, particularly over the past five years or so, so I would urge all Romanians... to fight hard and defend the independence of the judiciary and keep it out of politics," she added.

Nuland referred to a recent vote exempting lawmakers from corruption charges and to an attempt to pass legislation that would pardon a number of politicians convicted for graft.

The vote on the pardon bill was eventually postponed to February and Nuland said it was unclear if the draft law was still on the parliament's agenda.

The bill granting immunity to members of parliament while in office sparked an outrage in Romania and was then slammed by the US embassy in Bucharest as a move "away from transparency and rule-of-law".

The European Commission, which keeps a close watch on Romania's drive to rein in corruption, and several EU members including the Netherlands, Germany and France also voiced their "concern".

Faced with the harsh criticism, Prime Minister Victor Ponta in December said the bill should be submitted to the European Commission before a new vote was called.

"I have had important assurances today from the government with regard to its understanding of the international reaction to that particular round of events," Nuland said after meeting Romanian Foreign Minister Titus Corlatean.

Nuland also stressed that "the US supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova and the right to choose its future," in response to comments from Romanian President Traian Basescu saying he was in favour of reunification between Romania and Moldova.

The former Soviet republic of Moldova was part of Romania before its annexation by the Soviet Union in 1939 and the majority of its population speak Romanian.