Government unexpectedly approves decree changing criminal code
Demonstrators demand cabinet that took over last month quits
Romanians poured into the streets of major cities to protest the government’s surprise decision to quash corruption investigations into officials and seek the annulment of convictions for other offenders.
Demonstrations late Tuesday in Bucharest, where temperatures fell to -7 Celsius (19.4 Fahrenheit), drew 12,000 people demanding the government steps down, while at least 8,000 gathered elsewhere in the eastern European nation. The cabinet earlier backed proposals that had sparked the biggest protests since the fall of communism. Parliament must approve a bill on the pardons, while criminal-code changes have already been published in the official journal.
“This damages the judiciary and breaches its independence,” President Klaus Iohannis said Wednesday, vowing to challenge the steps at the Superior Council of Magistrates, which oversees the courts. “The only option I won’t accept is do nothing about it. We must make a stand at an institutional level.”
The Social Democratic-led government that took over the European Union and NATO member a month ago is facing unprecedented public opposition to revamp criminal legislation. About 90,000 people demonstrated Sunday in a second weekend of dissent, with at least 50,000 rallying in the capital alone. Protesters back a long-standing anti-graft drive that’s ensnared top officials including a former Social Democrat premier.
Concerns have arisen in other parts of the region that democracy is under threat. The EU has reprimanded Poland and Hungary for state encroachment on the judiciary and the media. The government in Warsaw backed away from plans to tighten abortion rules after mass protests. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday in a call with Iohannis that she’s worried about the situation in Romania.
More than 1,000 demonstrators remained in Bucharest on Wednesday, with further demonstrations planned for the evening. The turmoil sent the leu 0.5 percent weaker, erasing almost all of this year’s gain against the euro.
The government says it’s trying to relieve overcrowded prisons, where conditions have led to cases in the European Court for Human Rights. “I took into account all the requests of the people and amended the bills,” Justice Minister Florin Iordache said Tuesday.
If the pardons legislation is approved, prisoners serving sentences shorter than five years — excluding rapists and multiple offenders — will be freed, according to Iordache. A separate emergency decree decriminalized abuse of public office for offenses concerning less than 200,000 lei ($48,000).
Anti-graft prosecutors, who’ve locked up hundreds of corrupt officials in a four-year clampdown, said Wednesday that they’re currently working on more than 2,000 abuse-of-office cases. In the past two years alone, they’ve send more than 1,000 people to trial, recovering damages in excess of 1 billion euros.
Romania ranks fourth-worst for graft in the EU, according to Berlin-based Transparency International. Social Democratic leader Liviu Dragnea is serving a two-year suspended sentence for electoral fraud and faces another abuse-of-office probe in which he denies wrongdoing.