One of the most significant rulings in 2021, for those who keep a close eye on human rights, was the decision by the High Court of Justice inLondon that Romanian businessman Gabriel Popoviciu must not be extradited to Romania, highlighting concerns about Romania’s legal system.
Popoviciu’s case drew attention to the fact that the Romania legal system does not meet the standards expected of a country with membership of the European Union. The robust judgment from the UK court went so far as to say Popoviciu suffered a “complete denial of fair trial rights”. This is the first time that the High Court has concluded that extradition to an EU Member State represents a real risk of a “flagrant denial” of a requested person’s Convention rights, making this one of the most notable cases of the year.
The European arrest warrant has allowed fast-track extradition between members of the European Union from 2004 onwards. The arrangement is based on the concept that each European country can have faith in one another’s legal system. The decision that Popoviciu must not be sent back was a landmark decision as it indicated that the injustice he had experienced in Romania shed light on the failings of Romania’s judicial system, ending any pretence that it could be relied upon to meet European standards. It is for this reason that the UK ruling was so significant, highlighting as it did the failings of the Romanian legal system.
Popoviciu was convicted of ‘complicity in abuse of power’ in his native Romania in 2016. The case related to the land used for the development of the Băneasa project in Bucharest, a contribution in kind of a state-owned university to the social capital of Baneasa Investments SA. Popoviciu was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment, reduced to seven years on appeal. The Romanian authorities requested his extradition from the UK. In August 2017 Popoviciu went in good faith to the Metropolitan Police in England and a district judge ordered his return to Romania. After hearing fresh evidence, the High Court ordered his release.
Judge Holroyde and Judge Jay handed down a decision quashing the order for Popoviciu’s extradition to Romania, describing his case as “extraordinary”. They found that there was credible evidence to show that the trial judge who convicted Popoviciu in Romania – whilst holding judicial office, and over a number of years – corruptly assisted “underworld” businessmen with their legal matters. In particular, the trial judge had provided “improper and corrupt assistance” to the complainant, and chief prosecution witness in Popoviciu’s case, including the soliciting and receiving of bribes. The trial judge’s failure to disclose his pre-existing corrupt relationship with the complainant – and the Romanian authorities’ failure properly to investigate this link – were crucial to the UK court decision.
The London court concluded that Mr Popoviciu was not tried by an impartial tribunal and that he had “suffered a complete denial” of his fair trial rights as protected by Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. They also asserted that the serving of a prison sentence based on an improper conviction would be “arbitrary” and that extraditing Popoviciu would consequently represent a “flagrant denial” of his right to liberty as protected by Article 5 of the European Convention.
The Court accordingly quashed the order for extradition and allowed the appeal.
Leading legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg said of the case: “The real lesson of this case is a more chastening one: you don’t have to travel far to find judicial behaviour that would be unthinkable in the United Kingdom. It should also be unthinkable in the European Union.”
The case stands out for both legal experts in London and policymakers in Brussels as having shed light on the failings of Romania to reach European standards in terms of rule of law and its judicial system.