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article image'No justice' five years on from Romania nightclub fire

By Mihaela RODINA, Ionut IORDACHESCU (AFP)     Oct 28, 2020 in World

Five years after a devastating nightclub fire killed three of her friends and left her with severe burns, 39-year-old Romanian Flavia Lupu said justice still has not been served in the case -- and that not enough lessons have been learnt.

Lupu was one of hundreds trapped inside the Colectiv nightclub in central Bucharest on October 30, 2015, when a fire sparked by pyrotechnics engulfed the venue.

A total of 64 people died and hundreds were injured in the disaster.

The blaze stunned the country and triggered a wave of anti-corruption protests and a nationwide debate about administrative incompetence, bribery and safety standards.

Lupu and other victims complain that the tragedy has not led to lasting change.

"What I want is for people to remember and ultimately act," the freckle-faced dental technician told AFP.

In December 2019, a court in Bucharest handed down prison terms totalling 115 years to 13 people, from club owners to officials responsible for fire precautions.

The nightclub's three owners were each sentenced to 11 years and eight months.

Cristian Popescu Piedone, former mayor of Bucharest's fourth district where the nightclub was situated, was given an eight-and-a-half-year jail sentence for abuse of office.

- 'Slap in the face' -

However, the convicted are not yet behind bars as appeals against the verdicts are still being heard.

In 2019  a Bucharest court handed down prison terms totalling 115 years to 13 people  from club owne...
In 2019, a Bucharest court handed down prison terms totalling 115 years to 13 people, from club owners to officials responsible for fire precautions

"We will go all the way so that all light is shed on this drama," said a tearful Lina Rusitoru, whose son Marius perished in the fire.

"For those charged, breaking the law seems normal," she told AFP while attending the appeal hearings.

Adding insult to injury, in local elections in September Piedone successfully ran for mayor of Bucharest's fifth district.

"It was a slap in the face for us", said Lupu.

"I wasn't furious that he won, but that he was allowed to run".

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the government led by the left-wing Social Democratic Party (PSD) resigned only to be re-elected a year later in a landslide.

For many it was the first sign that the moment of reckoning needed after the tragedy might not come.

As well as the lack of accountability since the fire, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed that many long-standing problems in the healthcare system remain unaddressed.

After initially insisting Romania did not need any help to treat the injured after the fire, officials reluctantly agreed to transfer a number of them to hospitals abroad.

Lupu was one and was shocked to discover how bad the Romanian care she had received was.

"The German doctors told us they hadn't seen wounds like ours since the war and that we had bacteria that they also hadn't seen in as long", she said, having made several trips to Munich for surgery.

- 'Living in complicity' -

Experts say that, as in the aftermath of the fire, under-reported infections acquired in hospitals are exacerbating the immense strain that the country's hospitals are under as a result of the current pandemic.

Eugen Iancu's son Alexandru died in the fire said he lives in a 'country where there'...
Eugen Iancu's son Alexandru died in the fire said he lives in a 'country where there's no justice'

Still suffering from a big shortage of medical staff and equipment -- especially in intensive care units -- Romania has one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the EU.

"The system has remained unchanged, despite the crisis from five years ago which was criminally handled," said whistleblowing doctor Camelia Roiu.

Four years ago, Roiu leaked a video to local media showing maggots swarming around the wound of a patient being treating for severe burns at the Bucharest hospital where she still works.

"It's a system built on amateurism, fraud and corruption", she said.

Romania is at the bottom of the EU ranking for percentage of gross domestic product spent on healthcare, at just 5.6 percent.

"The funds allocated to hospitals are already limited, and if on top of that they are wasted because of corruption there is not much left," said Vlad Mixich, president of Romania’s Health Observatory NGO.

In front of the building which previously housed the Colectiv nightclub there are now photos of the victims and candles lit in their memory.

Several NGOs have called on people to form a human chain from the site to Bucharest's appeal court on the evening of October 30 to commemorate the victims.

Eugen Iancu, whose son Alexandru died in the fire, said he lives in a "country where there's no justice".

But, in the end, who is to blame for this tragedy?

"All of us", replies Iancu. "Because for the past 30 years we've been living in complicity, ready to do anything to avoid respecting the rules."

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