Alarming reluctance of Romanian judges to comply with fair trial norms in the case of yoga practitioners

Bucharest, 18 December 2012

Another court session in the case against Gregorian Bivolaru, founder of M.I.S.A. yoga school in Romania, took place on 18 December 2012 in the High Court of Cassation and Justice (HCCJ) of Romania. The session is part of the retrial which was decided in April 2012 by HCCJ, when it cancelled previous verdicts by the Trial Court and Court of Appeals of Romania, ruled in favor of the defendant.

The decision of the HCCJ’s panel, presided by judge Ionut Matei, to cancel previous verdict and to retrial the case, was accompanied by many procedural irregularities and judicial abuses, raising concerns on impartiality of the judiciary and respect for fundamental liberties in Romania. Following the international concern about the case, Soteria International decided to monitor the trial sessions and the events related to it.

Throughout the sessions Soteria International observed a considerable harassing attitude of the judges towards the defense council representing  Bivolaru, who himself was not present in the court due to his status of political refugee in Sweden, a status he obtained because of the abuses perpetrated against him in Romania. On multiple occasions, the judge Ionut Matei, mostly in a rude, aggressive and deprecating manner, denied defense lawyers the possibility to speak, to formulate objections and motions. The same attitude was adopted towards the witnesses of the defense, in a drastic discrepancy comparing to the attitude towards the witnesses of the prosecution. According to the observations, the witnesses of the prosecution were allowed to talk freely and to dwell lengthily in incoherent and irrelevant testimonies, often encouraged by leading questions from the judge, while witnesses of the defense were treated in a hasted manner.

The session on 18 December 2012 was declared a secret session, thus Soteria International did not have direct access to the proceedings of the court and had to limit its monitoring to the statements made by witnesses after the trial. All 4 persons audited in the session were witnesses of the defense. All reported to Soteria International that the judge did not allow them to speak freely and acted in an intimidating manner, by reminding excessively that they will be imprisoned in case of lies. Witnesses also noted that the judge manifested an aggressive attitude in his speech, gestures or mimics towards them; one witness stated that “the attitude of the judge made me feel that I am the one who is accused in the process". Another witness observed a possible bias of the judge, when he tried to discredit the testimony given and prove it wrong by asking questions that had little significance, like what was the cover on the bed in the room, and how was the furniture arranged, which was difficult to answer accurately given that 8 years have passed since the event in question.

The lawyers if the defense noted that in comparison with previous sessions, the judge Ionut Matei did not manifest direct verbal aggression to the same extent, however this slight improvement did not cancel the overall environment of hostility they face in this court. Once again they expressed their concern regarding the possible bias of the judge and his determination to convict the defendant. The prosecutors were not available for declarations.

While the court was in session, about thirty yoga practitioners were protesting peacefully outside HCCJ building. Similar protests were organized during the previous sessions as well. Their representative declared that the number of participants to the protest was limited by authorities, given the insufficient space in front of the HCCJ building, thus they resort to creative measures to draw attention. This time, given the proximity of Christmas celebrations, protesters sang carols portraying the injustice perpetrated by the police and judges against them and called for the light of Divine justice to be shed in the court.

Soteria International continues to draw international attention towards the case of persecution of yoga practitioners in Romania, given the alarming results of the trial monitoring, which lead to the conclusion that Romanian judiciary continues to fail on ensuring the respect of fundamental liberties for Romanian citizens.