Romania: Booing at Protests Could Be Punishable by Up to 1 Year in Prison

The Parliament is set to debate several proposals to amend police laws that criminalise booing during protests, among other things.

Several proposals to amend the laws regulating police activities, as well as those regulating public assemblies in Romania, are likely to violate human rights and freedoms or, through their ambiguity, allow abuses of citizens by law enforcement authorities.

Liberties member the Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Romania - The Helsinki Committee (APADOR-CH) has called for clarification of these proposals or the removal of some of them. These proposals have to be passed by Parliament to come into force, but they come at a tense time when many of the economic and social measures announced by the government are causing strong dissatisfaction among citizens, who are taking over the streets of Romanian cities.

Examples of controversial reforms:

  • The proposal to criminalise and punish by imprisonment from 3 months to 1 year the act of "using words, expressions, offensive or obscene gestures" towards law enforcement officers. This provision is so wide and vague that any gesture or word used in front of a police officer could be classified as criminal behaviour. Such behaviour could include, for example, booing to express dissatisfaction. According to the proposed law, these criticisms may be interpreted by police officers as "words, expressions or offensive gestures", so that all persons participating in that public assembly may become perpetrators. Currently, Article 257 of the Criminal Code criminalises a form of verbal assault, namely using verbal threats towards law enforcement offices. Such a threat must go beyond simple offensive language, therefore criminally sanctioning such behaviour can be justified by the fact that it might actually put police officers in danger. However, the danger of "offensive gestures, words or expressions" is of a very different nature. Additionally, the European Court of Human Rights has accepted as legal shocking and even offensive expressions when it comes to attracting attention on issues of public interest.
  • The introduction of a new form of deprivation of liberty, called "administrative arrest", which gives police officers the power to forbid a person from leaving a certain space. Police laws already provide for an administrative procedure that allows police officers to escort a person to a police station. The proposed law does not provide for any limitation of the duration of administrative detention, nor offers details on the procedure to be followed or on the guarantees to be put in place to ensure the right and freedoms of the person subjected to such measure are respected. Such a provision, which is obviously extremely vague, can not be used as a ground for deprivation of liberty.
  • The introduction of the vague notion of "harmless position", which people have to maintain while in front of police officers. APADOR-CH called for a clearer definition of this position, otherwise police officers will have the freedom to interpret what constitutes a "harmless position". Under the law, there is nothing to stop them from choosing to interpret as dangerous a person sitting on their belly, with their hand behind their backs.

All the comments and proposals made by APADOR-CH on these legislative proposals are available here.

APADOR-CH agrees that police officers must benefit of real and effective protection and adequate means to ensure their safety, including of a legislative nature, when they are properly discharging their professional duties. At the same time, abuse of powers should never be accepted - it must be prevented at all costs, and when abuses do occur, they must be sanctioned.

Therefore, any regulation in this field, even if well-intentioned, should not create, through ambiguity or disproportionality, conditions that facilitate the abuse of power.