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98 year-old wins decades-long fight for property seized by the Communist regime

Maria Atanasiu and Others v. Romania  | 2010

98 year-old wins decades-long fight for property seized by the Communist regime

In the 1990s, I thought we would get it back within ten years.

Maria Atanasiu’s daughter Ilenei Poenaru, quoted by Evenimentul Zilei - © Photo evz.ro

Background

Maria Atanasiu was born in 1912. Along with her daughter, she was the legal heir to some property in Bucharest. The property was seized by the communist regime in 1950.

However, after the fall of communism in Romania, a series of laws were passed giving people the right to claim back property that had been nationalised by the authoritarian regime or obtain compensation.

After 1990, the family tried to claim their property back. Yet by 2010 their case was still unresolved.

Tens of thousands of Romanians were in a similar position. After making claims for the return of property, they were faced by legal barriers and long delays – many lasting over a decade. The European Court received hundreds of complaints about the problem.  

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The applicants had received final court rulings ordering the authorities to give a decision on their claim. Nevertheless, the authorities had still failed to issue a decision, without providing any justification.

The European court ruled that this had breached the applicants’ right to access a court and their right to their property.

The court used the application as a test case demonstrating the problems in the Romanian system. It stated that the authorities must put in place measures capable of guaranteeing effective restitution or compensation for people who had valid property claims, while striking a fair balance between the different interests at stake.

For me, as a lawyer who had the honour to represent her interests, Maria Atanasiu is a winner. She believed in justice, she fought for justice and she won justice.

Corina Popescu, who represented the applicants, on her firm’s website

Follow-up

Maria Atanasiu and her daughter were both paid compensation equivalent to their ownership of the nationalised property.

In 2013, a new law came into force which reformed the reparation process. This included the following:

  • A general principle providing for the restitution of properties whenever possible (and compensation when it was not);
  • A roadmap of administrative steps for carrying out the process for restitution applications;
  • Precise time-limits for the administrative stages, supported by judicial review to ensure that the time-limits are met and to verify the legality of the decisions

In a later ruling, the European Court found that in principle this provided an accessible and effective framework for dealing with the issue, with certain exceptions.

The Council of Europe continues to monitor remaining issues concerning property restitution in Romania.