A Romanian scandal that threatens press freedom that the UK could stop in its tracks

alexander-adamascue

Alexander Adamescu: Facing extradition from the UK using the European Arrest Warrant

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Romania is not particularly high profile. It is  best known for Bram Stoker’s Dracula stories and the infamous  rule of Communist President Nicolae Ceaușescu overthrown and killed in a revolution in 1989.

Now it is seen as a NATO ally, a democracy with free elections and in European Union circles as being tough on corruption.

But beneath the surface there is growing evidence that Romania is about to go the same way as Hungary and Turkey with a crackdown on the freedom of the press, arbitrary arrests and flouting the rule of law.

The issue is becoming deeply personal – and this blog has decided to take up the issue – over the plight of a German businessman who with his father owns Romania’s oldest newspaper, Romania Libra. The paper  has been a thorn in the side 0f successive  governments by exposing corruption  and political intrigue. I have written both a news story and a large  feature in Tribune this week on the case.

Alexander Adamescu currently lives in St John’s Wood in London. His father Dan is in hospital in Romania while serving a prison sentence for corruption based on the uncorroborated evidence of one person that he tried to bribe an official. His son is now – two years later -facing a similar charge after a flimsy examination of the evidence in a 30 minute hearing called at two hours notice in his absence.

The Romanians are  using the European Arrest Warrant – which faces only a very limited challenge in the British courts- to try and extradite him to Romania and this spring there will be a court hearing.

Alexander Adamescu has applied for political asylum to Theresa May, has asked the all party Romania committee to take up his case in Parliament and appealed to the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn as a backbencher took up his father’s case in 2014 and was heavily critical of Romania’s judicial process. So far British politicians have not acted.

In the last year there have been more sinister developments – reminiscent of Russia’s secret service – affecting his family. He believes his wife, Adrianna, was the subject of a bungled kidnapping  outside his St John’s Wood flat this March.

As she got out of her car and approached her flat two masked men attacked her and tried to drag her to a waiting car.

She said: “They were both wearing bandanas and gloves. They drove in a Mini Cooper with fake number plates – as I was later told by the police – and didn’t steal anything from me despite the fact that I was wearing diamond earrings, and had my car keys in my hands.”

“When they approached me, I threw myself to the ground, and fought with them until my neighbour Kymone Hansson, hearing my screaming and came running out to me. At the same time, a cab driver with a passenger in the back seat pulled over next to me and called the police. That was the moment I was saved. The two men ran to their car and quickly drove away”.

The Met Police were able to trace the car but not the people and the case has been left on file.

Later there was a second incident which can be directly attributed to the Romanian authorities. Adrianna was returning from Bucharest and was stopped at the airport before she could board the plane. The authorities said her four year son could not leave the country because he was Romanian (he was born in the UK). As he is four they could not detain him so she quickly left the airport with him and drove across the border to Bulgaria and returned from there to the UK.

The issue of prison conditions in Romania- where nearly 500 people have died over the last five years often due to the lack of medical treatment –  has already been challenged in the High Court in London by the international human rights lawyer, Ben Emmerson ( who also represented Alexander Livenenko’s widow in the recent public inquiry into his poisoning by plutonium). He has taken up the cases of other people being extradited by the Romanians and the prison.

Romania’s cramped and unsanitary prison conditions mean that pre-trial detention has also become a kind of punishment. Prison standards are so bad that between 1998 and 2015, the European Court of Human Rights found Romania guilty of 178 violations of Article 3 of the ECHR prohibiting inhuman or degrading treatment. The court recorded 27 violations in 2015.

.Serious questions about the role of the independent judiciary, the misuse of the European Arrest Warrant and the freedom of an independent press to investigate the government are all at stake. Even the role of major accounting firms working in Romania like KPMG have been questioned.

Journalists on the paper have published an open letter accusing KPMG of aiding and abetting members of the Romanian government to rig insolvency hearings to destroy and silence their newspaper, infringing on the publication’s fundamental rights to freedom of expression.

“There is no doubt about it – this is a case of privatized censorship. KPMG has been used as a front by certain members of the Romanian government to take over control or shut us down,” said Sabin Orcan, chief editor of România Liberă.  “Our publication has survived more than 140 years of the worst types of oppression, including during the Soviet period. But who knew it would be the accountants who would deliver the death blow to freedom of the press in Romania?”

KPMG, to be fair, did find problems with the insurance company that bankrolled the paper, but recommended changes that amounted to a rescue plan for the company. The government vetoed the plan which shows where they stand.

All this suggests that the British government should act to stop this move. Given that it is committed to leaving the EU it should be possible to overrule this action or grant him political asylum.

 

 

 

 

How Kenneth Clarke and Chris Grayling’s failed commercial venture cost us the taxpayer over £1m

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An extraordinary report published by the National Audit Office today on ” Just Solutions” – the commercial arm of the Ministry of Justice set up by former Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke – reveals that taxpayers have lost over £1m on the failed venture.

Remember this was promoted by Chris Grayling so the Ministry of Justice could make money by selling prison expertise to regimes with appalling judicial systems like Saudi Arabia and Oman. It was closed down by Michael Gove when he became justice secretary after the election.

Now the NAO reveals that not only was this unethical but it actually cost the taxpayer money. Indeed one can see how desperate the government might have been to sign a  £5.9 m contract with Saudi Arabia and further contracts with Oman – as this would have been the only way it could have made a profit out it.

Instead over four years  from 2012 to this year  it lost £302,000, £390,000 £317,000  and £141,000 respectively. leading to a £ 1,150,000 cumulative loss for the taxpayer.

And its scope was much wider than people realised with projects in Nigeria, the Seychelles, Libya, Estonia, Mauritius, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands as well as private study visits to drum up business in China, Bangla Desh, Turkmenistan and India.

As the NAO found: ” The cost of setting up JSi exceeded the income generated by completed contracts. We estimate that JSi’s costs were approximately £2.1 million from 2012 until its closure, including £239,000 on consultancy services. Therefore JSi made a net loss of approximately £1.1 million in this period. This is due, in part, to the decision to withdraw from prospective arrangements with Saudi Arabia and Oman.”

The report discloses that it had big plans for Oman.

“The initial proposal, Phase 1, was for a small piece of work to critique the plans of an
existing prison and was valued at £98,000. This was expected to be followed by work
to develop a new prison in Oman, Phase 2, valued initially at approximately £4 million
but later negotiations increased this to £7.8 million. In addition, preliminary discussions
were held in 2014 with the Omani government around a national training programme.”

Grayling also spent £6500 fighting off a judicial review  of its activities before the organisation was closed by Michael Gove.

This is all a far cry from the boasts in the Ministry of Justice six monthly report saying it was all contributing to the ministry’s budget and supposed to be saving the taxpayer money. Instead it was racking up debts.

This a sorry tale for anybody who has a shred of ethics and thought Britain should not be helping regimes that flog and behead offenders. Bur the fact that it lost money doing it is  a  further damning indictment of the government and Chris Grayling.

As Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, said yesterday:  “When Just Solutions International was closed down it had made an overall loss of £1.1 million despite a commitment that it would be self-funding by April 2013.

“Despite being a commercial venture, it generated less than £1 million income over three years.

“I am concerned by the loss of taxpayers’ money on this failed venture, and the Ministry of Justice’s ongoing work with countries with questionable human rights records.”

 

 

Dropped: The vile Saudi Arabian contract that helped prop up a barbaric justice system

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The Cabinet revolt that ended the £5.9m contract bid by the now doomed Just Solutions International – the commercial arm of the Ministry of Justice – is to be welcomed.

Justice Secretary  Michael Gove’s decision to press home ending this deal over the head of Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, and initially, David Cameron, is the only morally acceptable case. Britain could not be seen helping a country that uses public beheadings, floggings and crucifixion as a routine part of its justice system.

When I first saw the disclosure of the deal in a routine half yearly report of the Ministry of Justice laid before Parliament I had no idea we had a commercial arm of the ministry, let alone that we had already done deals with Oman and Macedonia and were bidding for a Saudi contract.

Thanks to the work of. lawyer David Allen Green – known as Jack O’Kent on Twitter- who has assiduously followed this issue since -Downing Street has become embarrassed – and finally thrown in the towel. You can follow him on the JackofKentblog

I am also delighted that Lord Falconer, the shadow Lord Chancellor has reported this to the National Audit Office – because Just Solutions International set up by Gove’s predecessor, Chris Grayling, deserves a thorough financial examination.

I am also pleased that Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader used his conference speech to demand David Cameron dropped the deal. I realise that he reads Tribune where I also featured developments there.

So for once justice has been done and seen to be done in the full glare of the media – rather than injustice being sneaked out in obscure Parliamentary reports.

So afraid of the Saudis: How the Brits daren’t cancel a contract to bolster barbaric justice

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Jeremy Corbyn has challenged David Cameron to explain why the British government can’t cancel a contract with the Saudis to provide training for their prison system just as it is about to execute a teenage dissident and crucify his body.

The Prime Minister who rightly does not spare a word in condemning Islamic State for its barbarism from throwing gay people off high buildings, and the public beheading of dissidents and hostages, is coy about financing the Saudis to behead its own dissidents or lash its social media bloggers like Raif Badawi.

Michael Gove, the new justice secretary, last week announced he was closing down Just Solutions International, the commercial wing of the Ministry of Justice that was flogging expertise to unsavoury regimes including Oman and the Saudis.

Except  that in its afterlife it will continue with a contract to Saudi Arabia,His decision reverses the policy of his predecessor, Chris Grayling, who was planning to expand its business as a way of raising revenue for the ministry without being particular about which regime’s justice system they were supporting.

The existence of Just Solutions International was revealed earlier on my own blog. So it i is good news that Michael Gove, the new justice secretary,is closing it.

This is a secretive organisation that the ministry refused to reveal any details about – despite admitting there are 2000 emails about its operations. A splendid thorough investigation of the background of the company’s bid for Saudi Arabia has been written up by David Allen Green on his Jack of Kent blog.

I have also written a story for Tribune highlighting how ministers are admitting that the real reason they have not cancelled it is because in Andrew Selous’s words -( he is the junior minister at the Ministry of Justice) – “The critical factor was the strong view from across Government that withdrawing at such an advance stage would harm HMG’s broader engagement with Saudi Arabia.”

This replaced the phoney reason originally given to Parliament which ministers had to withdraw that it couldn’t be cancelled because the government faced penalty clauses. Despite that it is still reported in some media that this is the reason.

This is an appalling situation and the fact that Jeremy Corbyn linked this to the case of teenager Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr who will be beheaded for a ” crime ” he committed when he was 14  deserves highlighting.

He wrote: “Will you step in to terminate the Ministry of Justice’s bid to provide services to the Saudi prisons system – the very body, I should stress, which will be responsible for carrying out Ali’s execution?”

The Labour leader concluded: “Ali’s case is especially urgent – the secrecy of the Saudi system means that he could face execution at any time, and even his family may only find out after the event. There is therefore no time to spare in taking this up with the Saudi authorities, if we are to prevent a grave injustice.”

Not only should he take this up  and the Foreign Office has said it will – but this contract should not go ahead. Britain should not dirty its hands with aiding a regime that imposes such cruel punishments anymore than it should support the Islamic State.

In Britain the National Audit Office ought to look at the setting up of Just Solutions International and decide whether this experiment in commercialising a department was ” value for money”..This should then be taken up by the Commons public accounts committee.

The secrecy around this is totally unjustified and it appears only Parliament can properly investigate it.

Exclusive: Michael Gove faces High Court action over selling legal services to aid Saudi beheaders and torturers

Michael Gove: Facing a High Court challenge over selling services to the Saudis

Michael Gove: Facing a High Court challenge over selling services to the Saudis

Tomorrow the High Court will receive an application from  the Gulf Centre  for Human Rights to bring a judicial review over the Justice Secretary’s decision to bid for commercial work from the Saudi Arabian government because of the regime’s appalling record of public beheadings, torturing dissidents and flogging bloggers like Raif Badawi.

The case against Michael Gove is a legacy from his predecessor Chris Grayling but is linked to an appalling case of torture against a Saudi Arabian -simply known for his own protection as AB.

The Gulf Center, a non governmental organisation based in Beirut and Copenhagen, defends independent journalists, lawyers and bloggers in the Middle East, is applying to take over the case  started by AB after it appears the Ministry of Justice retrospectively removed legal aid from him.

Central to the case is the shadowy and secretive (we know this as it vigorously finds any way not to release information) Just Solutions International, a commercial arm of the Ministry of Justice set up by Chris Grayling.As readers of this blog and those who follow the excellent  Jack of Kent aka lawyer David Allen Green will know – Just Solutions has an unenviable reputation of providing services to dodgy regimes and has a £5.9m bid for Saudi work at the moment.

The centre’s lawyers  want leave from the court to challenge whether the organisation has complied with official Whitehall guidelines before bidding for the contract and also whether Michael Gove or his predecessors  has acted illegally by creating this commercial organisation without any Parliamentary approval.

Their case cites information from  government documents on this blog and Jack of Kent’s blog. We have been separately pursuing the ministry over related issues.What they have found out is that there are no public documents saying that it followed the coalition’s  Overseas Judicial and Security Assistance guidelines.

These restrict all government departments from bidding for work from regimes which breach human rights if the Government’s reputation is damaged or is a serious risk to aiding or significantly increasing human rights abuses.These are spelled out as regimes that unlawfully detain people, have the death penalty, torture people and limit freedom of expression. Saudi Arabia ticks nearly very warning box.

Baroness Anelay: Saudi people want floggings

Baroness Anelay: Saudi people want floggings

Until now the standard response has been that this help is meant to help improve standards. that is until a comment from  foreign office minister Baroness Anelay in reference to the flogging of Raif Badawi in the Lords : ““My Lords, I think we have to recognise that the actions of the Saudi government in these respects have the support of the vast majority of the Saudi population.”

Melanie Gingell, a member of GCHR’s advisory board, said:: “It seems to us that far from improving human rights standards in the detention systems of these  regimes, the UK is more likely to be simply improving the efficiency of the systems within which these notorious abuses are being carried out.  The British public has been horrified by the public beheadings and floggings carried out in Saudi Arabia, and now mirrored by ISIS, and they have a right to know exactly what role the UK government is playing in these systems.”

She added, “We fear that the driving motivation behind these bids is purely commercial, and the veil of secrecy that has been drawn over them simply serves to deepen our concerns that the UK is making money out of the worst aspects of these regimes, that it condemns in public, but is happy to give support to in private.”

Deighton Pierce Glynn Solicitors (DPG) are acting for GCHR.  Adam Hundt, a partner at DPG, stated: “It is surprising that JSi’s activities have taken place shrouded in secrecy, and without parliamentary debate or approval.  If the UK is to sell its public services to regimes that behead people for sorcery, stone women to death and flog people for expressing pro-democracy views, then one would expect our Parliament to be consulted and given the opportunity to impose appropriate parameters on such activities.”

A campaign to crowd fund this action has also been launched by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. The link is http://www.gofundme.com/saudiprisons 

Internet trolls beware, your prison cell awaits

With growing interest on the abuse of people on the internet, some amazing figures have emerged from the Ministry of Justice showing the huge rise in the number of prosecutions in the last decade.

I am indebted to the pay wall site of Media Lawyer for permission to reproduce much of their findings and to Inforrm blog who have also published the report.

Ten years ago just 143 people were convicted of the crime  to send “by means of a public electronic communications network” a message or other material that is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.

Last year – the latest figure for convictions had soared to 1209 – an extraordinary eight fold increase.

As Media Lawyer reports:

“The previously little-used section [ Section 127 of the malicious communications act 2003] has come to prominence in recent years following a string of high-profile cases of so-called trolling on social media sites.

It can also cover phone calls and e-mails, and cases of “persistent misuse” which cause the victim annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety.

Ministry of Justice  statistics show that 1,501 defendants – including 70 juveniles – were prosecuted under the Act last year, while another 685 were cautioned.

Of those convicted, 155 were jailed – compared with just seven a decade before. The average custodial sentence was 2.2 months.

Compared with the previous year there was an 18% increase in convictions under Section 127 but the number has dipped since a peak in 2012 when there were 1,423.”

The article adds:

” The issue of online abuse came under scrutiny after cases such as the targeting of Labour MP Stella Creasy, who spoke of the “misery” she suffered caused after a Twitter troll re-tweeted menacing posts threatening to rape her and branding her a “witch”.

Other victims of trolling have included campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Chloe Madeley, daughter of Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan.

The MoJ figures also revealed a similar rise in the number of convictions under the Malicious Communications Act, which makes it an offence to send a threatening, offensive or indecent letter, electronic communication or article with the intent to cause distress or anxiety.

Last year, 694 people were convicted of offences under this Act – the highest number for at least a decade and more than 10 times more than the 64 convictions recorded in 2004.”

I have noticed  an increase – since this blog has highlighted  child sexual abuse – in the number of survivors who speak out and then find themselves the target of trolls – sometimes saying they don’t believe their story.

The government  will increase penalties. Media lawyer reports it will increase: “the maximum sentence for trolls convicted under the Malicious Communications Act from six months to two years and extend the time limit for prosecutions under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 to three years from the commission of offence.”

Obviously there has to be a balance between pursuing people and free speech – with the previous head of the Crown Prosecution Service now a Labour MP, Keith Starmer, saying there must be a ” high threshold” and people practising internet jokes should not be prosecuted. But what is disturbing -and I intend to return to this is that the abuse and misuse of the internet is growing  and there may be a case for even harsher penalties for the most persistent offenders.

Too expensive to reveal: The 2000 Whitehall emails on Just Solutions International

The  secretive and expensive world of the miniistry of justice

The secretive and expensive world of the ministry of justice

Earlier this year this blog disclosed how the Ministry of Justice had  quietly set up a profit making subsidiary with the aim of marketing justice to obnoxious and corrupt regimes like Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia and has now been revealed Macedonia.

This disclosure caused some embarrassment and a lot of anger that the United Kingdom government should be bidding to profit from advising countries like Saudi Arabia who lash bloggers and hold street beheadings which the UK forcibly condemn should the Islamic State do the same. The anger is most eloquently expressed on the blog of lawyer David Allen Green who runs a superb commentary on his Jack of Kent blog.

Naturally I thought it  would be in the public interest to find  out exactly how this rather shadowy body had been set up and what was the ministerial drive behind it.So what better device than the  current Freedom of Information Act to ask the ministry the questions. That was last January .

This was my request:” I would like to request details of all emails and communications between ministers and officials held by the Ministry of Justice and NOMS regarding the establishment of Just Solutions International  under the present coalition government.”

it took the ministry exactly 28 days( the maximum under the act)  to decide that such a request was so broad that they sent me a letter saying they would refuse to proceed with it at all unless I narrowed its scope. They could have told me the next day if it was the case.

So on February 25 I sent an amended request:

“What I would like to request  are documents and communications ( by email) between officials and ( if any) between officials and ministers which led to the creation of Just Solutions International. eg pertaining to  the reason why it was set up and. its role within noms and the ministry.”

It took until late April ( way beyond the 28 day period) to answer with a lovely letter dated xx April 2015 . And guess what evidently Whitehall has so much material debating the creation of Just Solutions International that it is too expensive to send it to me.

According to the letter it exceeds the £600 cost limit and would take civil servants more than three and a half days to find them all.

As their letter says; “In this instance to provide you with the information we would be required to locate emails, which we have estimated exceed 2000, since 2012 which detail the creation of Just Solutions international.”

They have suggested I could narrow down the request a again either to a short time period or by named official ( I don’t have the names of all the officials anyway). However in the spirit of kindly co-operation I have narrowed down the time limit to one year and see if this yields any results. I await the reply  with interest though they have not given me the courtesy of saying they received the request yet.

I suspect that the officials don’t really want to release anything – because the whole volume of correspondence – seems to suggest to me that they had a lot to discuss about why and how this  private profit making company was set up. But there is no reason yet to give up and all the more reason to probe exactly what is behind an initiative that believes making money from dodgy regimes is an ethical revenue earner for the taxpayer.