Romanian prosecutors probe their own crime unit chief

By Luiza Ilie

By Luiza Ilie

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian prosecutors obtained permission on Friday to detain their own organised crime unit chief pending a criminal investigation, the latest in a series of high-profile corruption cases in the eastern European state.

Anti-corruption prosecutors had filed a request with the judicial supervisory body to detain Alina Bica, accused of abusing her position in a previous role at a government agency that restores property seized under communism to its original owners.

Bica, who has not yet been arrested, could not immediately be reached. The crime unit declined to comment.

Anti-corruption prosecutors have earned high praise for their efforts from the European Union, which is keeping Romania's justice system under special supervision and has barred the country from its passport-free Schengen zone until its performance improves.

Earlier this week, parliament struck down a bill aimed at keeping politicians out of jail, bowing to pressure from incoming president Klaus Iohannis who won an election last weekend promising to safeguard the rule of law.

Thousands of Romanians are still waiting for compensation or the return of property seized under the Communist regime that fell in 1989. Disputes over land ownership, inefficiency and red tape have hampered efforts to return the land.

Prosecutors said Bica was part of a panel that approved the grant of compensation in 2011 to unidentified businessmen for 13 hectares of land in Bucharest that was deliberately overvalued by 62.5 million euros (49.6 million pounds).

As a result, the businessmen were compensated with shares worth 89 million euros in restitution fund Fondul Proprietatea, a 3.2 billion euro company that holds stakes in a slew of state-owned firms.

The case is part of an investigation that so far extends to two of Bica's former colleagues, as well as a land assessor, at least one businessman and an ethnic Hungarian MP.

In the run-up to the presidential election, prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the father-in-law of Prime Minister Victor Ponta in a case where roughly 43,000 hectares of forest land was illegally granted to third parties.

Data from prosecutors showed 1,007 people have been convicted for graft and related offences in Romania so far this year, including 85 ministers, parliamentarians, county prefects, mayors, state firm managers, judges and prosecutors.

(Editing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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