Crusading women prosecutors blaze trail of justice in post-Soviet Romania, taking on old guard

Prosecutor Denisa Cristodor made history last fall, launching Romania's first case against a communist-era prison guard suspected of crimes against humanity.

The 37-year-old is blazing a trail on another surprising front, as part of a vanguard of young women prosecutors and judges shaking up Romanian society by going after its sacred cows: ministers and moguls who bled the state of hundreds of millions, former prison commanders in communist-era prisons suspected of torture and murder.

Most of these women were in school when communism collapsed 25 years ago. Today they are slowly forging an independent justice system based on their belief that nobody is above the law.

Under communism, the justice system was a man's domain — which shielded fellow men in the ruling elite. That began to change with the advent of democracy and capitalism in the 1990s, when men left poorly paying state prosecutor and magistrate jobs to become lawyers or businessmen, leaving the door open for women. The result: 60 percent of Romania's prosecutors and judges today are women.

The "feminization of the justice system" is helping Romania shed its status as a swamp of corruption and patronage, said Cristian Parvulescu, deacon of the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration

"These women are stamping their own vision on Romania," said Parvulescu. "Before they were not able to do it and they are doing it in a courageous way."

The first winds of change came in 2005 after Traian Basescu was elected president on a vow to fight corruption. The following year, he appointed Laura Codruta Kovesi as Romania's first woman prosecutor general. She was only 33 at the time. Nearly a decade later, Kovesi is Romania's most powerful woman, spearheading an anti-corruption fight that fearlessly goes after some of Romania's most powerful figures.

In recent months, anti-corruption prosecutors have indicted the former finance minister over bribery allegations; charged Prime Minister Victor Ponta's brother-in-law on suspected graft; and investigated Basescu's brother, closest ally and son-in-law.

In 2014, the anti-corruption office secured a record 1,051 convictions, up from 743 the year before. Even more are expected this year. Among those convicted since January 2014 were a former prime minister, seven former ministers, a former deputy prime minister, four lawmakers, one European Parliament lawmaker, 39 mayors, 25 magistrates and two tycoons.

Kovesi, a former professional basketball player, became a magistrate in 1995. "Twenty years ago, they said the prosecutor's office was not a place for women," she told The Associated Press. "They said we'd give up more easily ... I hope I have knocked down that belief."

Kovesi and her colleagues are regularly criticized by politicians and in the media, whose owners have been themselves been convicted of corruption. She now has security guards assigned to guard her.

"What is surprising is that corruption is present at levels and in all sectors," Kovesi said. "I saw people who were being investigated and they chose to continue corruption, to hide to use more sophisticated methods and disguise their bribes."

Cristodor's crusade began out of a belief that the horrors of the communist era must not go unpunished — no matter how far they retreat into the past.

In the past year, she has indicted the former commander of Romania's notorious Ramnicu Sarat prison and the commander of Periprava labor camp, where more than 100 died.

Alexandru Visinescu, 89, went on trial in September accused of crimes against humanity for the deaths of 12 prisoners at Ramnicu Sarat, where he was commander from 1956 to 1963. Even a quarter-century after communism, no former prison commander from that time had ever faced justice.

Ion Ficior faces the same charges for the deaths of 103 people at Periprava, which he ran from 1958 to 1963. His trial has not yet started.

Both men deny the charges and say they were following orders.

Cristodor has been compiling the cases against Visinescu and Ficior since 2013. She spoke to dozens of witnesses, traveling to the homes of those who were too sick or frail to make the journey to the prosecutor's office. And she visited Ramnicu Sarat where inmates were held in cramped, frigid cells.

"What surprised me is (former prisoners) made no material demands, the historic reparation was enough," she told The AP in her first media interview.

"It was a regime of physical and mental extermination," she said. "(Prisoners) woke up with snow on their hair because it so was cold and the water in their mugs froze. It was inhuman ... They communicated by coughing in Morse code."

Parvulescu says women like Kovesi and Cristodor have brought new respect for the law in Romania.

"Christian Orthodox countries are masculine societies where justice is the result of negotiation," he said. "Women are interested in moral values."